What’s Wrong with This Phrase?

With apologies to the student who wrote it: I know something is wrong with what follows, but I can’t quite make my brain kick up information about what and why.

9% of the Senate consists of women…

When you say that something “consists” of something else, you’re usually saying that several something elses go into making up that something, right? So I think I’d be good with “The Senate consists of nine women and 91 men.” But to say that nine percent of the Senate consists of women sounds to me as though women are only one ingredient in that nine percent.

Am I right here? Or am I just getting dizzy from looking at the pile of grading in front of me?

8 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with This Phrase?

  1. Well it’s true that 9% of the Senate consists of women (and nothing but); however, it’s a pretty ungainly phrase. I’m not sure it’s wrong, but it is definitely awkward.

    I’d probably say “women constitute 9% of the Senate” instead.

  2. I’m no grammarian, but I’ll take a stab at the question.

    I agree that it’s jarring to use “percent” in conjunction with “consists,” and if we replace “X percent” with “X out of one hundred” (and the per-one-hundred ratio works neatly in this particular case) I think the source of awkwardness becomes clear: “Nine out of one hundred [members] of the Senate consist[s] of women.” Instead, the sentence should be something like, “9% of Senate members are women.”

    Of course, the real issue is that at the particular college where you teach, the student in question was most likely saying something like, “Anyone who mistakenly believes that we live in an age of gender equality should consider that only 9% of Senate members are women”; at the school where I teach, I’m just as likely to get a paper that says, “A whole 9% of the Senate is female, so I’m not sure what you crazy feminists are still complaining about.”

    Oops, did I type that out loud?

  3. Two problems – like you wrote, the phrase suggests that 9% of the whole include (not exclusively) women, while the point s/he was probably trying to make is about the 91% excluding women (which is not actually mentioned).

    Second, I think “consist” is better for lists of things or ingredients (“the batter consists of milk, sugar, and flour”), not a single item or a part of a whole (“one part of the batter consists of milk”).

    I think other oddity is that the Senate is a 100 member body, so percentages are kind of redundant!

  4. My first instinct would be that the sentence’s problem is that there were only nine freaking women in the Senate. Now we’re up to a practically even sixteen out of one hundred, though, so I don’t know what I’m complaining about. [/bitter sarcasm]

    Seriously though, I’m no a grammar person, but that definitely sounds wrong.

  5. That would get ‘awkward’ and ‘word choice’ for me To consist is to participate in its essence as a part of its whole, but inseparable, and as such the participants, such as the relationship between the people dwelling in a home and the home. the home consists of those that make it their home. Without those people, it is not the same home, the essence changes, and thus the home changes. It makes little to no sense to use a percentage in terms of consist either, or to use consist in terms of senators, though it would be fine to say that the senate consists of a location and the senators that occupy it.

    That is my take. The proper construction to me would be “9% of senators are women” or “Women make up 9% of the Senate”.

  6. It could be correct. 🙂 That is, if you take the percentage female and percentage male of each member of the senate and averaged them, it might just be that, on average, 9% of each Senator is female.

  7. Fun question – I must be procrastinating.

    As with I agree with 2. (e. fiction) that percent refers to something specific, consists refers to an aggregate. Nothing can “consist” of something specific – compare:

    A car is made of an engine. Wrong.

    Cars are made of engines. Wrong.

    Cars are made of engines and other stuff. Right.

    The Senate consists of 9% women, 90% men, and 1% other. Right.

  8. I agree with Mr. Douglass, and his examples highlight perfectly the logical foundation of his (correct) answer. It’s not that 9 percent of the Senate consists of women, but that the Senate consists of 9 percent women [and 91 percent Martians, or whatever].

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