The Grammarphobia Blog

Is a ranking a rating?

Q: I teach a class in how to use a risk-mitigation tool that assigns a number between 1 and 10 to potential problems. The documentation refers to this number as a “ranking.” I think a “ranking” is a position on a list, and use the less specific term “rating” in my class. Am I causing needless confusion over a picayune statistical distinction?

A: Standard dictionaries generally agree with you that a “ranking” is a position on a list or scale based on achievement, as in “a number-three tennis ranking,” while a “rating” is merely a classification based on quality, as in “a four-star restaurant rating.”

Although some of these dictionaries use the word “rating” in defining “ranking” and “ranking” in defining “rating,” the examples given fall into the two categories above.

Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, defines a “ranking” as a “position in a scale of achievement or status,” and gives this example: “Victory at the Deutsche Bank championship lifts Singh to number one in the world rankings.”

Oxford defines “rating” as a “classification or ranking of someone or something based on a comparative assessment of their quality, standard, or performance,” and offers this example: “The hotel regained its five-star rating.”

Yes, the difference is subtle, but there is a difference. Vijay Sing was the best of the best golfers in the world, while the hotel was one of those with five stars.

Are you causing needless confusion over a picayune statistical distinction?

Well, you may be causing confusion and the distinction may be something less than earth-shattering. But you’re the teacher and it’s your call.

If you think it’s important enough to maintain this distinction in your class, then maintain it. You have the lexicographers at most standard dictionaries on your side.

Both nouns showed up in English in the 1500s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. “Ranking” then referred to the act of classifying people or things, and “rating” meant assessing for taxation.

It wasn’t until several hundred years later that the two terms developed the meanings you’re asking about.

In the early 1800s, “ranking” came to mean a position on a scale of comparison, OED citations indicate, and in the early 1900s, “rating” took on the sense of a measurement of one’s achievement. Here are the first examples for each usage.

● “A preparation too well known to require describing, except in regard to its mode of formation, which the preparer, in spite of his ranking as a scientific druggist, has hitherto kept a profound secret” (from the April 1836 issue of the American Journal of Pharmacy).

● “He has been elected President of the Blanker Banking Co., which means that his rating is first-class in the business world” (from Out of the Ashes: A Possible Solution to the Social Problem of Divorce, by Harney Rennolds, 1906).

The word “ranking” is an offspring of “rank,” which in turn comes from ranc, Old French for row or rank, but the ultimate source is khrengaz, a prehistoric Germanic root meaning circle or ring, and source of the English word “ring.”

How did that prehistoric Germanic word give English both “ring” and “rank”?

The OED suggests that “the sense of the French word apparently arose from application originally to a circular or cross-shaped disposition of forces in battle.” So a rank of soldiers may once have been in a circle, not in a row.

The ultimate source of “rating” is the Latin phrase pro rata parte (according to a fixed part, or proportionately), John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto notes that rata is the feminine form of ratus, past participle of reri (to think or calculate), which has given English “ratio,” “ration,” “reason,” and similar words.

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