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.