Grammar Moses: How many times does math go into journalism?

A running gag in college was that one of my friends ― an education major ― had to take an elective in a realm in which he had no interest or acumen. He called the class Physics for Poets.

I took English for Engineers.

I don’t know a lot of journalists who have an extensive background in mathematics, as I do, but they’re out there. Data-based investigative work forces one to bone up on that sort of thing.

So I find it amusing when, come tax levy time or election time, we send out a reminder and glossary so that those who were too busy working on the school paper to do their math homework can reacquaint themselves with the basics.

Travis Siebrass, who wears many hats at the newspaper, including that of Election Czar, sent out a staff memo on Election Day that included: voters don’t defeat referendums (a form of election) but rather ballot questions or tax increases; how to figure out percentages of votes cast; the difference between “percent” and “percentage point”; and the difference between a “ratio” and a “margin.”

If a municipality wants to raise a tax to 7% from 6%, that’s a one percentage point increase but also a 16.7% increase. It’s really important to get that right. If we don’t, we could change the course of a referendum.

Now for the difference between a ratio and a margin. I have seen my share of broadcast election coverage to know that some people believe they are synonymous.

The margin of victory is the difference in the number of votes. If Daffy Duck had 300 votes and Donald Duck had 200 (I can’t believe the vote would be that close), Daffy’s margin of victory would be 100 votes. Sometimes we write someone won by a margin of 300 to 200 votes ― a construction I’m not fond of ― but one that gives you more context. In a race for governor, 100 votes is a pittance. In a vote for a fictional anthropomorphized water fowl, it’s substantial.

The ratio is the proportion of votes cast. In the case of Daffy and Donald, Daffy won by a 3:2 ratio.

I never considered that the margin and ratio in a scenario could come out the same, but that was the case in the Deer Park sales tax referendum last week. Deer Park has one precinct in Cook County (the rest in Lake) and four ballots were pulled there. Three people voted. The ratio of votes was 2:1 and the margin of victory was 2 to 1.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim’s book, “Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage,” at Write him at and put “Grammar Moses” in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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