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Editing Tip: Commonly Confused Terms in Data Analyses

Several words that are commonly used when describing data are also frequently confused. This article outlines a few of these terms.

Research studies in numerous fields require quantitative analyses. Beyond actual data and equations, specific terminology is needed to clearly convey and discuss results. However, several words that are commonly used when describing data are also frequently confused. This editing tip outlines a few of these terms.

Amount/number, less/fewer

The first term in each pair is used when discussing uncountable items, whereas the second term is used to describe countable items. Note that number is interchangeable with quantity.

  • The amount of cytokine produced by the treated cells was less than that secreted by the control cells. (the cytokine is uncountable)
  • The number of viable cells increased in both treatment groups, although fewer cells were observed in treatment group B. (the cells are countable)


In scientific writing, the word significant is typically synonymous with "statistically significant." Nonsignificant means the opposite, or "not statistically significant." In contrast, insignificant usually implies unimportance, without statistical connotations.

  • The difference between the two samples was nonsignificant (p>0.05). (statistical implications)
  • The vast size of the canyon made them feel insignificant. (no statistical implications)


Prevalence is the proportion of cases in a given population at a moment in time, indicating how widespread a condition is (as in “5/1,000 Americans are affected by this disease”). In contrast, incidence is the proportion of new cases in a given population in a given time period, reflecting risk (as in “3/1,000 Americans develop this disease each year”).


A proportion describes a part of a whole, a ratio delineates the relationship between two quantities with the same units, and a rate is the relationship between two quantities with different units.

  • The proportion of tissue samples that exhibited pathological changes was 6 out of a total of 9 samples.
  • Distilled water and 10X PBS were mixed at a ratio of 9:1 to form 1X PBS.
  • The rate of sampling was 5 measurements per minute.

Other commonly confused terms that are relevant to data analyses, such as dose/dosage, survival period/rate, and correlated/associated, can be found in another article on confused and misused terms in clinical writing.

This editing tip has hopefully clarified the correct use of several terms often used to describe research findings. Please email us at [email protected] with any questions.

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