Are High Odds Good or Bad?
Published December 2, 2011
Tags: Grammar Girl, math, words
by Grammar Girl
Ben Zimmer has an interesting post today over at Language Log about something Newt Gingrich recently said that is hard to parse because it has so many negatives:
It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee. (ABC News, emphasis added)
Ben’s post didn’t address the problem with the “high odds” part of the sentence though, and I just happen to have consulted recently with a mathematician about that topic for my upcoming book GRAMMAR GIRL’S 101 TROUBLESOME WORDS (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s). Here’s what he helped me conclude:
Odds and Probability Are Not the Same Thing
Mathematically, odds and probability are not the same thing, although colloquially, many people treat the words as synonyms. Further complicating matters, odds for the same event can be presented in different ways. For example, one person might think of the odds of rolling a six on a regular six-sided die as 1 to 5 in favor, and another person might think of the odds as 5 to 1 against.
“High Odds” and “Low Odds” Are Confusing
You can get in particular trouble when you talk about odds being high because high odds can mean something is likely or unlikely depending on how your reader interprets it. The same goes with calling odds low.
What Should You Say?
Use another word. For example, say there’s a good chance or a high probability of something happening if you mean it’s likely. If you must use odds, say they are good or bad, not high or low.