Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I'm surprised he's surprised

Mark Liberman at Language Log is surprised that a writer might not be good at math.

I gather from this that there are educated, intelligent and otherwise skilled adults who are not sure how to turn two numbers into a percentage change, and that some of them are working as public relations professionals. I'm not trying to be snarky, I'm just truly and sincerely surprised.

Let's see if I can help Mark understand. First, in my experience most writers in PR, advertising, or communications have humanities educations. Remember back in college there were all those people taking English courses and their parents would say, "What are you going to do with that?" Well, that's what they're doing with that. And second, if the last time you were asked to figure out a percentage change was 20 years ago, when you were more focused on the cute potential mate in the seat across the way, you might be a little rusty.

[Update: I'm SOOOO misunderstood (see Mark's update to his OP). I don't blame Mark--I wasn't feeling very verbose yesterday. By pointing out that most writers are have humanities education, I didn't mean to dump on English majors. I have a degree in English. I meant actually, to poke a little fun at Mark's intellectual snobbery. First of all, most writers have a different specialization than scientists. And second, they really don't want to be doing their jobs. The joke in advertising is that they are all frustrated novelists.

As for this:
But, but, percentages are taught in the 5th grade

c'mon, how much does anybody remember from 5th grade? And to the previous point, it's not like writers are doing math every day (figuring tips is easily fudged).

As for Holly Cordner's claim
If you can’t even do elementary math, how did you get through your formal education? How did you get a college degree?

I'd say pretty easily, I don't know about her school, but Temple only required a "Math for Humanities" course that was pretty pathetic. Anyway, it's really besides the point. English majors spend a lot of time learning about other things. Their expertise is elsewhere. They don't need to double major in math.]


boredoom said...

I can attest that percentage change is a bugbear for financial writers. I wrote a little program to help them along in my office.

parsnipgirl said...

I think percentage change is tough for most people, because it is one step more complicated than simple percent. -- it always requires some subtraction in there.

For some reason I think people find "percent" slightly complicated so "percent plus another operation" really seems to be hard. I remember how amazed someone (a grownup!) was once when I showed them that to compute the total price including (New Jersey) sales tax, you could multply the price by 1.07. I'm not sayin' who.

Maybe as cognitive scientists we could be asking why "percent plus another operation" is so hard. Not that I'm a practicing cognitive scientist these days.

Ed Keer said...

"I'm not sayin' who."

Was it me?

parsnipgirl said...


the shah of hooterville said...

Yes, I have had many lengthy conversations trying to explain the difference between markup and margin to faculty.

Percentage impairment -- a secret national shame.

And -- there are no answers in this book!!! D'oh.

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