News reports often mention the results of surveys and studies in ‘per cent’. Literally, ‘per cent’ means ‘per one hundred’, so ‘25 per cent’ means ‘25 out of one hundred’. As mentioned in the introduction, a per cent is just a specific kind of fraction – one that always has 100 as its denominator.
This means that it is important to remember that the per cent symbol, ‘%’, is not a unit as some people think. Instead it is a symbol that actually affects the number itself. Twenty-eight per cent is not equal to 28, it is actually , or 0.28
So, , not 28.
If you would like to see this explained visually, have a look at this short video.
One of the reasons why percentages are useful is that you can make comparisons between different sets of data more easily than with the actual numbers.
Suppose that you are told that, over the course of one week, 345 people opted for a meat dish in one restaurant, but only 217 did in another. Does this mean that the meat dish was less popular in the second restaurant? You couldn’t conclude that unless you knew how many people in total had actually eaten in the two restaurants. In fact, in the first restaurant, 35 per cent of the total numbers of diners ordered a meat dish; in the second, 39 per cent. It is now immediately clear that the meat option was more popular in the second restaurant.
Hopefully, you can see from this example how useful showing data as a percentage can be for understanding of that data. This use of percentages will occur many times, not only your everyday life but also in other areas of study.
For example, if you ran a small bed and breakfast business and read that tourist numbers were expected to increase by 34 per cent across the UK by 2017, you might like to be able to work out what that could mean for your business. Or, you may be faced with a set of numbers breaking down the UK population into different age categories and for the purpose of your studies need to work these out as percentages. So knowing what a percentage can and can’t tell you, and how to present the raw data (the actual numbers) as a percentage, can relieve a lot of headaches!
So a percentage is just a specific kind of fraction and you know from your previous study that fractions and decimals are related to each other. This means that you can also write percentages as fractions and decimals. You’ll look at how to do this in the next section.