Bird baths

11 Dec

Picture 24

I know what you’re thinking: what are the other four types of water? If you substitute the other isotopes of hydrogen, I suppose, there’s heavy water (with deuterium), and tritiated water (highly radioactive, with tritium). Seawater, as opposed to fresh water, for a fourth? Maybe. And then, er, chicken.

No, wait. It seems as though the headline, jammed into a tight space on the web front page, is trying to convey something different: that frozen chickens, thanks to an unsavoury sounding process known as “tumbling”, can be up to one-fifth water by weight when purchased.*

We talked last week about how leaving out the “little words” – articles and forms of the verb “to be” – can cause infelicities in headlines. But even putting back “is” in this one doesn’t solve the problem; whichever way you read it, you’re inserting “is” as the verb after “chicken”. The problem is with “a fifth”. And it’s a problem I suspect that only British editors have.

You’d think  that loosey-goosey, demotic American English would be less precise than uptight, colonial British English about fractions, but I’ve always found it to be the other way round. Saying “one-fifth” for a written-out fraction, as explicitly called for in Chicago style and implicitly in AP, is understood on both sides of the Atlantic, but over here, what you might call “colloquial fractions” with an indefinite article – a fifth,  a quarter, a third – are far more common in everyday use.

No doubt this usage may have crept overseas as well, but I can’t ever recall a US speaker in a  formal setting using “a” to form a fraction. Certainly President Obama and Al Michaels – the two modern pinnacles of American diction – never seem to do it. And of all the things a US citizen could say to sound alien in Britain – gasoline, spackle, jump rope – nothing marks you out as a visitor any more clearly than the painstakingly accurate “one-half of one per cent”. Half a per cent, we’d say.

But of course “a” + an ordinal number means something else as well:  a third republic, a fourth symphony, a fifth water. So we need to be a bit careful. It wouldn’t hurt us to sound a little American at times, and go for “one-” when there’s space.

And if there isn’t, why not just “Supermarket chicken 20% water”?

* The article says that consumers are paying about 65p a kilo for water. That sounds about right: a kilo of water is the same as a litre (very well thought out, the metric system), and 65p is about what you pay for a 1l bottle of own-label springwater. That wouldn’t have “additives” in it, though, of course. And anyway, you wanted chicken.

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8 Responses to “Bird baths”

  1. Garrett Wollman December 12, 2013 at 3:40 am #

    Except we’d write it “percent”! Granted, the space isn’t audible in speech. But I suspect for most AmE speakers, “percent” and “per cent” are a minimal pair. That notwithstanding, you’ll hear plenty of AmE speakers utter things like “a tenth of a percent”.

    • edlatham December 12, 2013 at 9:21 am #

      Ah, I was wondering afterwards if I’d over-extrapolated my American experiences. I think what I should have said is that whereas you do hear US speakers say ‘a’, you practically never hear British speakers use the more precise ‘one-‘ in normal usage.

  2. Darla-Jean Weatherford December 12, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    For me, I think it has a lot to do with context; I’d be more likely to say “one” if I needed to be specific but “a” if I were estimating. So my interest might be at “one half of one” percent, but my estimate of the weight of the chicken might be off by a quarter pound. Since the headline needs to stress that more-or-less exact 1/5, I’d have it read “1/5,” “one fifth” or “20%.” My inclination (from years of editing for engineers) would be toward “20%.” (No, I wouldn’t spell out percent because my engineers don’t in that context.)

    • edlatham December 12, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

      Yes, you’re right – all those options are better than what happened. I am interested in the “one-half of one” construction though – to my British ears, it’s so very transatlantic

    • Jeff December 19, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

      The thing is though that 20% sounds *more* exact than 1/5, by virtue of not being 19% or 21%, and that might be misleading. As we’re not saying it’s 1/4 or 1/6, there could be a rounding error of a couple of percent in there and after all we’re not trying to be exact but just to convey ‘a surprisingly large proportion’.

      And didn’t Gordon Brown often use ‘one-half of one percent’ and so on?

      • edlatham December 19, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

        Actually, now you say that about Gordon Brown, that does ring a bell. You can hear him saying it in your mind, certainly, at the Autumn Statement

      • Jeff December 22, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

        (And of course he was one for the plural billions – ‘We will put an extra three billions into schools’ or whatever.)

      • edlatham December 22, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

        Ah yes, there’s a can of worm(s) …

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