I was asked this intriguing grammar question recently by a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, Lyndon Gabato: “May I know if ‘percent’ is a countable noun or not? Someone asked me if 10% is a countable noun and I really cannot answer it correctly… I know that we say ‘20% of the computers are old’ and ‘20% of the chairs are made of wood’ but then we are dealing with computers and chairs.”
My reply to Lyndon:
I’ll tell you right off that “percent” is neither a countable nor a noncountable noun. “Percent” as a stand-alone word is normally an adjective that means “reckoned on the basis of a whole divided into 100 parts,” meaning that something is one part of a hundred. Usually, it takes the variant “percentage” when used as a stand-alone generic and nonspecific noun, as in “A percentage of an individual’s earnings goes to income taxes.” Although grammatically defensible, it just isn’t common usage to say “A percent of an individual’s earnings goes to income taxes.”
The word “percent” remains abstract even if a specific number premodifies it. This is why you found it difficult to answer when you were asked if 10% is a countable noun or not. You need a context to figure that out. Consider this test sentence: “In the recent US presidential elections, the 51-52 percent voter turnout (was, were) much lower than expected.” Here, the context or sense is that the adjective “51-52 percent” modifies the “voter turnout,” which is clearly a collective term that’s singular in form. It thus requires the singular form of the verb: “In the recent US presidential elections, the 51-52 percent voter turnout was much lower than expected.”
Indeed, it is only when “percent” is premodified by a specific number or measure, then followed by the preposition “of” plus a specific noun, that it grammatically matters whether the resulting noun phrase is countable or noncountable, as in this test sentence: “In the recent US presidential elections, the 51-52 percent turnout of voters (was, were) much lower than expected.” Should the form of the verb be singular or plural? The answer, of course, will depend on whether the subject of the sentence, “51-52 percent turnout of voters,” is considered singular or plural.
Consider that the term “turnout of voters” is a collective noun denoting the total number of people who participated in the elections. The fact that this noun is modified by the adjective “51-52 percent” doesn’t change its being singular, however, so it needs to be matched by the singular form of the verb: “In the recent US presidential elections, the 51-52 percent turnout of voters was much lower than expected.”
So then when is a collective noun considered countable?
The answer is that a collective noun either takes a singular verb if it is taken or works as a whole unit, or takes a plural verb if its members or units are taken or works individually. Consider this sentence from another news report about the voter turnout in the US elections: “A turnout of 55.6 percent for a total of 128.8 million Americans have voted in 2016, according to estimates of the US Elections Project.” This time, the verb is in the plural form “have voted” because the doers of the action (and also the subject of the sentence) are counted individually.
Now let’s go back to the two other percentage statements you presented, “20% of the computers are old” and “20% of the chairs are made of wood.” They both use the plural verb “are” because their respective subjects are counted as individual units. Clearly, the two are logical answers to the questions “How many percent—and not how much percent—of the chairs are old/are made of wood?” Both questions call for a countable answer.
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