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August 27th, 2008

Margin of error / second most favorite / eBay at the beginning of a sentence

by Barbara Wallraff

Arnold Simkus, of Warren, Mich., writes: “It drives me up the wall reading and hearing that such-and-such a poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. How do we know this to be true? We never have any outside party vouch for such ‘accuracy’ after any elections.”

Dear Arnold: We know that a stated margin of error is accurate the same way we know that the sun is 93 million miles from Earth, that Cleopatra ruled Egypt in the first century B.C. and a zillion other undisputed things: We take somebody’s word for it. In a world as complicated as ours, we can’t possibly have firsthand knowledge of the great majority of what we know.

I agree with you, though, that we mustn’t trust everything we read. So, how can we decide what to believe? If information is widely available and nobody credible contradicts it, it’s probably trustworthy.

In this case -- the margin of error of polls -- we don’t need an outside party to certify the results. Ultimately, we can see for ourselves whether the pollsters were right. For instance, suppose they say Candidate A is 5 percent ahead of Candidate B in an election-day poll, with a margin of error of 3 percent. Then A should come out ahead of B by 2 to 8 percentage points. Readers, if you know of any recent poll whose results were outside the margin of error, do tell!

Jack Jackson, of Guilderland, N.Y., writes: “I have a friend who gets upset when someone talks about their ‘second most favorite’ or ‘third most favorite,’ etc. -- as in ‘My second most favorite flavor of ice cream is vanilla.’ He claims that the word ‘favorite’ can refer only to the one very favorite, the ultimate most liked. Is he right?”

Dear Jack: Not if you believe Shakespeare, who left his “second best bed” to his wife in his will. “Best” is what’s known as a superlative, and in many ways “favorite” functions like one. When these words stand by themselves (as in “You’re the best” or “You’re my favorite”), they refer to the highest degree of something.
But if we add modifiers, we can also use these words to rank things: “second best,” “third favorite.” Nothing wrong with that. All the same, your friend is right to be bothered by “second most favorite.” That’s like saying “second most best.” The problem word is “most,” not “favorite.”

Lynn Sullivan, of Portland, Ore., writes: “When using the name of a company or computer program that is normally styled with lowercase letters followed by uppercase letters, is the first letter capitalized at the beginning of a sentence? For example, ‘eBay’ or ‘inSTREAM.’”

Dear Lynn: Yes, that’s right. “EBay” it is. “InSTREAM” too. “InStream” is also an option -- generally a better one. Businesses stick capital letters in the middle of their names or the names of their products in order to get noticed. But you don’t have to play along. Most professional writers, unless their jobs require them to be deferential, allow companies no more than one “intercap” -- as in “inStream” or “NStar” (the name of my electric company, which styles itself “NSTAR”).

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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