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A Word, Please: The chasm between ‘a’ or ‘the’ majority isn’t so vast

“Isn’t ‘a vast majority’ an abomination of an expression?” Jeff in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., wants to know. It’s not the “vast” part that has Jeff curious. It’s the “the” part.

Hear him out: “In any group or set there has to be a number that’s the majority, right? If 100,000 people were surveyed and 60,000 agreed with a certain proposition, it wouldn’t be correct to say, ‘A vast majority of those surveyed agreed with XYZ proposition,’ would it?

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Because there aren’t two or multiple majorities within the group on that proposition, only one majority. And that would be ‘the’ majority, not ‘a’ majority. Do you agree?”

Jeff has a point about the logic of using “the.” Articles like “a” and “the” indicate whether the nouns they modify are specific or just one in a crowd.

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If I say I saw a dog, you know it could be just about any dog. But if I say I saw the dog, I’ve telegraphed to you that you’re supposed to know which dog I’m talking about.

In such examples, “a” clearly means “one among several or many.” So saying “a majority” is a bit like asking your husband to walk your only dog with “Honey, will you walk a dog?” It suggests that there are multiple majorities when really there is only one.

On the other hand, I can swat those concerns away with a single word: idiom. That’s shorthand for: “It’s OK to do it because people do it and people do it because it’s OK to do it.”

I know it sounds like a cop-out. But that’s how the rules of language are formed. And when we consider the phrases “a vast majority” and even just “a majority,” it’s clear these are standard terms: A majority of TV viewers enjoy comedy. A vast majority of comedy fans have TVs.

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“A majority” is idiomatic, even if it’s not quite logical. “Vast” doesn’t change that. With or without “vast,” “a majority” isn’t an error, and I’m fine with it.

Jeff had a follow-up question that’s harder to answer: How did “a” before “majority” or “vast majority” come to be the norm, especially in major media outlets where Jeff sees it so often.

I don’t know how. I never know what moves people to jump on this or that language bandwagon. But asking “when” gets some interesting answers.

Google Ngram viewer, which searches databases called corpora (plural for “corpus”) and plots the hits over time, shows that from the mid-1950s until 1999, the percentage of books and other sources containing “the vast majority” increased roughly tenfold.

Go back further and you see the same trend. The term has been on a clear upswing since the late 1880s. “A vast majority” isn’t exactly a rising star.

Take out “vast” and we see a trend that would surprise Jeff. “A majority” has been used pretty consistently in published writing since the late 1800s, with ebbs and flows that seem to even out in the end.

But “the majority” is on the rise. The percentage of published works in which it’s appeared has roughly doubled since the 1920s.

Out of curiosity, I also searched for “majority is” and “majority are.” Both are correct, as “majority” can function as either singular or plural depending on context.

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But sticklers will be happy to hear that “majority are” is about twice as common in books these days as “majority is.”

You can take all this into consideration when you’re deciding how to use “majority.” Or you can put it on your don’t-worry-about-it list, which is where the vast majority of other people’s grammar peeves belong anyway.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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