Explaining what numbers mean involves using a wide range of specialised language
THE NEED FOR DATA INTERPRETATIONS
Numerical data, whether in tables, graphs or pie diagrams, is a common tool in business, academia and the press. It can be illustrated with the following table that WordPress once provided to help me assess the popularity of the Guinlist blog:
Some aspects of data like this are immediately obvious, but many more depend on the process of “interpretation”. This involves making comparisons in order to discover significant trends. Businesses, academics and journalists regularly have to do it in writing. A written interpretation of the above table might look something like this:
Overall the figures show an uninterrupted increase in the number of times that posts within the Guinlist blog have been viewed. This can be seen by comparing all of the annual totals, as well as the totals for individual months. No monthly total is below the total for the same month in the year before. However, the increases are not regular, some months being much less busy than others. Sharp monthly falls, for instance, are visible in December and June (except in 2012). The busiest months tend to be May and October, May 2015 holding the current monthly record, with as many as 5000+ views. The overall rate of increase appears to be gradually slowing: there was an eightfold increase in 2012 compared to the previous year, and a sevenfold one in 2013, but in 2014 the rate was less than twofold.
In this post I wish to analyze the use of language in written data interpretations, so as to highlight the language choices that are available. More information about dealing with numerical data is in the Guinlist posts 67. Numbers in Spoken English, 95. Hedging 1: Numbers & Generalizations, 104. Naming Data Sources with “As” and 163. Ways of Naming Properties.
THE SPECIAL LANGUAGE OF DATA INTERPRETATIONS
Various kinds of language are common in data interpretations. They include the following:
1. The Language of Comparison
The centrality of comparison in data interpretation makes comparison language very important. More specifically, this is the language of similarities and differences. Different ways of expressing similarities in English are considered in this blog in the post 149. Saying How Things are Similar. Also relevant is 56. Comparing with “Like” and “Unlike”.
A major means of expressing differences is comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs. Examples in the text above (underlined) are less busy, busiest and less. Common problems with comparatives and superlatives are considered in the posts 82. Common Errors in Making Comparisons, 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much” and 102. Adjectives with No Noun 2.
Sometimes it is useful when comparing numbers to say not just which one is larger or smaller but also by how much it is so. There are various ways of doing this. One is to add words like twice, three times, four times etc before an as … as … construction (is four times as high as … ; has twice as few … as …). Another option is number words ending in -fold, which can be adjectives (showed a threefold increase) or adverbs (rose fourfold). There are three -fold words in the text above. One can also use numbers with percent in an adjective or adverb way (suffered a 6 percent fall, expanded [by] 40 percent). Finally, there is the option of using a less precise adjective or adverb like great(ly) – see (3) below for a list.
2. Words Meaning “Increase and “Decrease”
The meanings of INCREASE and DECREASE are so frequently needed in data interpretations that English, in order to minimise repetitiveness, has developed a wide range of synonyms for them. Since both words can be either a verb or a countable noun, the synonyms include both verbs and nouns. Many, such as BLOOM, are metaphorical (see 7. Metaphorical Meanings). Here are some examples:
INCREASE (verb): ACCELERATE, ADVANCE, BE AMPLIFIED, BE AUGMENTED, BLOOM, BLOSSOM, BE BOLSTERED, BOOM, BE BOOSTED, BE BUOYANT, BURGEON, CLIMB, BE ENHANCED, ESCALATE, EXPAND, FLOURISH, GAIN GROUND, GO UP, GROW, IMPROVE, INTENSIFY, JUMP, LEAP, LIFT, MOUNT, MULTIPLY, MUSHROOM, PERK UP, PICK UP, BE RAISED, REDOUBLE, RISE, ROCKET, SHOOT AHEAD, SNOWBALL, SOAR, STRENGTHEN, SURGE, SWELL, TAKE OFF, WAX, ZOOM.
INCREASE (noun): (an) acceleration, an advance, (an) amplification, an augment, a blossoming, a boom, a boost, buoyancy, a burgeoning, a climb, (an) enhancement, (an) escalation, an expansion, a gain, growth, (an) improvement, (an) intensification, a jump, a leap, a lift, (a) multiplication, a pick-up, a redoubling, a rise, (a) strengthening, a surge, a take-off, an upsurge, an upturn.
DECREASE (verb): COLLAPSE, CONTRACT, CRASH, BE CUT, DECLINE, DETERIORATE, DIMINISH, DIP, DIVE, DROOP, DROP (OFF), DWINDLE, FALL, FALTER, FLAG, LESSEN, LOSE, MELT AWAY, PLUMMET, BE REDUCED, SHRINK, SINK, BE SLASHED, SLIDE, SLOW DOWN, SLUMP, SUBSIDE, TUMBLE, WANE, WEAKEN, WITHER, WORSEN.
DECREASE (noun): (a) collapse, (a) contraction, a crash, a cut, a decline, (a) deterioration, (a) diminution, a dip, a dive, a droop, a drop, a dwindling, a fall, a lessening, a loss, a plummet, (a) reduction, (a) shrinkage, a slash, a slide, a slowdown, a slump, a tumble, (a) weakening, (a) worsening.
The Guinlist post 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2 points out that the preposition in is commonly preferred to of after the nouns increase and decrease to indicate what exactly increases or decreases. The same preference applies to many of the synonym nouns listed above.
In addition, there are verbs that suggest either the end of an increase or decrease, such as BOTTOM OUT, FLATLINE, LEVEL OFF/OUT, PEAK, STABILIZE, STAGNATE and TAPER OFF, or variable movement, such as FLUCTUATE, RECOVER, OSCILLATE and VARY.
3. Adjectives & Adverbs Describing Increases & Decreases
Two adjectives of this kind are illustrated in the data interpretation above (an uninterrupted increase and sharp falls), and there is one adverb (gradually slowing). Most adjectives express continuation (like uninterrupted) or size of change (like sharp), but a few indicate something else, e.g. sudden, surprising and unexpected. Other continuation adjectives are constant, continuous, even, regular, steady and sustained. Size adjectives include (in ascending order):
imperceptible, marginal, minimal, paltry, pitiful, tiny.
slight, slow, small.
appreciable, gentle, gradual, mild, moderate, modest, noticeable.
great, impressive, large, marked, rapid, steep, striking.
dramatic, exponential, eye-watering (informal), gigantic, huge, massive, staggering, whopping (informal).
Adverbs are formed by adding -ly to any of the adjectives above except sustained, tiny, large, small, gigantic and whopping. They can be used with a verb from the lists above, and many also go with adjectives, particularly in the comparative form (was appreciably higher).
4. Number-Interpreting Expressions
Full understanding of numbers in a text involves appreciating their size – whether, for example, they represent a small quantity or an average one or a large one. The problem is that the same number can have different sizes in different contexts. For example, 10 is a small number of sand grains but a very large number of syllables in a word. In many cases, readers can be trusted to recognise a particular number’s size, but sometimes the writer needs to provide some help. Number-interpreting expressions have this use. In the data-interpretation text above, an example is as many as 5000+ views.
There are three other as … as expressions with this kind of use. As much as similarly indicates a large quantity, but is preferred before part-numbers (e.g. as much as half a kg) and quantities of uncountable substances (as much as 25 kg of sugar). As few as and as little as are counterpart expressions for indicating the smallness of a number.
Another way to interpret a number is by replacing it with a vaguer adjective like few, some, many, low, high, several or numerous. Some of these follow an important rule regarding the use of a following of: for details, see 133. Confusions of Similar Structures, #1 (also 160. Uses of “of”). Some, like low and high, are useful for giving meaning to mathematical properties like density or acceleration (see 163. Ways of Naming Properties).
Most of the change-describing adjectives listed in the previous section can also interpret numbers. One common way of doing so is with a before them and the number after them, e.g. a pitiful 25 spectators, a usage also possible with estimated (see 95. Hedging 1: Numbers & Generalizations).
5. Generalizing Expressions
This kind of expression is illustrated by the adverb overall at the start of the above text. It is the kind of adverb that links with the whole of its accompanying statement rather than just the verb (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs). It says that the broadest of all the conclusions obtainable from the data is being given. Possible synonyms are generally, in general, all in all, on the whole, broadly speaking and by and large. Note that these words are also listed in the post 95. Hedging 1, but have a different use there – more like that of normally.
Overall is also usable as an adjective. Typical partner nouns are increase, decrease (and their synonyms) and trend. The model interpretation above, for example, could begin with the words The (overall) trend of the figures is to show … .
Another useful generalizing word is average, which can be a verb, noun or adjective. As a noun, it often occurs in the phrases on average and an average of (+ number). Finally, it is useful sometimes to talk of approximate rather than exact numbers. Words like approximate(ly), rough(ly) and around are common – for more see 95. Hedging 1.