What does "every fourth victim" mean?


When the program began, the disease still threatened 60% of the world's population and killed every fourth victim.

I failed to get what the bold part could mean.


Posted 2014-11-07T17:23:42.110

Reputation: 5 551

It means either that it's badly translated, or written by someone who is trying to sound "fancy" at the expense of their answer making sense. Literally it would mean that every time four new people catch the disease, the fourth one is the one that's going to die. Most likely the writer means that it kills one victim out of every group of four infected, as diseases are not usually very precise about their victims. – Perkins – 2014-11-07T22:48:45.863

@Perkins "one out of *every* group" can only be literally true if there is only 1 group, the whole population, and only 1 person died. Otherwise we can pick groups for which this is false. Imagine there were 8 victims and #3 and #5 (by some arbitrary order) died. In the set {1, 2, 4, 6} no one died. In practice, your usage is idiomatic and its meaning is perfectly clear; "every fourth" is similarly idiomatic. The sequence is also arbitrary (by infection, by onset of symptoms, by admission to hospital?), so {1, 2, 4, *3*, 6, 7, 8, *5*} is as valid as any other. – DeveloperInDevelopment – 2014-11-08T16:35:29.980

@Perkins I don't think the sentence is well-written, but it's a perfectly normal idiom to say "every Nth X" to mean "one out of every N X". There's nothing "'fancy'" about that. – djechlin – 2014-11-08T16:58:11.593

@imsotiredicantsleep I didn't say "one out of every four" I said every time you add four to the series the fourth one dies. The assumption that there is a discernable series of infections and deaths is implicit in the statement "every fourth" and what makes it technically incorrect to use it here. – Perkins – 2014-11-11T18:58:15.800

@djechlin It's also perfectly "normal" for the express lane at the supermarket to say "10 items or less" instead of "10 items or fewer." Nevertheless, the latter is correct. The "fancy" accusation comes from the common pattern where someone who wants to sound educated picks the least-commonly-seen way to phrase something without realising that it's uncommon because it means something subtly different that doesn't apply most of the time. And when enough people start misusing it, then people start to see it as "normal" and the language becomes ambiguous and requires needlessly longer sentences. – Perkins – 2014-11-11T19:31:15.007

@Perkins you said "one victim out of every group of four". I should have generalised this as "one X out of every group of N" but hit the character count. The parts omitted would have added nothing to the explanation that followed. Your usage was technically incorrect, but idiomatic. Idiomatic is fine. I do not accept that there is an implicitly assumed sequence. How would you pick the order for "every fourth grain of sand on a beach"? Any basis for the sequence would be arbitrary, so why not just pick an entirely arbitrary sequence? – DeveloperInDevelopment – 2014-11-11T19:53:17.487

@Perkins you don't get how language works, do you? – djechlin – 2014-11-11T20:13:51.580

@djechlin You mean as a method of exchanging ideas based on a common frame of reference, the use of which both shapes and is shaped by that same use? Yes. I understand that. Why else would I consider it such a tragedy when people who cannot be bothered to learn the meanings of words before they use them turn phrases with very specific, separate meanings into equivalents, thereby introducing ambiguity and requiring longer sentences to convey the same meaning? It's like the habit of misusing "literally" to the point where the word largely loses meaning beyond a generic superlative. – Perkins – 2014-11-12T01:07:59.853

@imsotiredicantsleep Um... You wouldn't say "every fourth grain of sand on a beach," unless there was already established context for some particular order in which you were going to survey them. It's like the difference between giving a reward to "a quarter of the customers" vs. "every fourth customer." In the former case it is implicitly based on some order. In the latter case, the distribution is unspecified. Likewise, if I say, "the fourth one through the door," you know I mean number four specifically. If I change it to "every fourth one" that doesn't magically make the order irrelevant. – Perkins – 2014-11-12T01:23:49.447

1@Perkins This is getting circular. Yes, I would say that. Most sand is silica; every fourth grain is chert. It's idiomatic. Go play with Google Ngram you'll find similar examples going back at least to the 1700s: "cast every fourth man overboard", from 1792; "every fourth coach [...] is graced with a coronet", from 1801; "every fourth man in his dominions, able to bear arms", from 1857. This is not some recent mistake caused by the illiteracy of the Millennial Generation - it's a part of the English language. I don't expect to convince you; I'm trying to prevent others being misled. I'm out. – DeveloperInDevelopment – 2014-11-12T02:57:39.460



"Every fourth" (or every fifth, sixth, seventh, etc) is used in two ways.

  1. In a literal sense, if we count along a series of things and pick numbers 4, 8, 12, 16, ... then we have chosen "every fourth item." You might use this if you were talking about inspecting parts in a factory.

As the televisions came off of the production line, each was given a quick inspection. Every fourth television was removed for a more thorough examination.

  1. In a figurative sense, it means 1/4 of the total. That is the sense you found. The disease killed so many people it was as if we were lined up and the 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th,... people died.

During the war, every fourth man between the ages of 18 and 25 was drafted into the military.

Note: We don't generally say "every second" to mean 1/2 in this usage. Instead "every other" is more common, at least in AmE. Unfortunately, "every other" has multiple additional meanings, so you have to determine which is being used by context.

Jason Patterson

Posted 2014-11-07T17:23:42.110

Reputation: 4 772

Even though the second usage is common, I do not like it. It is often used to "lie with statistics". A similarly bad usage is "every 14 minutes, someone in America..." or "100 people are killed in car accidents every day." – Jasper – 2014-11-07T18:35:49.087

Usage #2 is common. I believe it is used over other options such as, "1/4 of victims died" and "25% of victims died" to make a statistic feel personal. Saying 1/4 of people died leads the reader to approach the problem academically, along the lines of "Mike has 1000 skittles. 1/4 of them mysteriously vanish into my mouth. How many skittles does Mike have?" "Every fourth man" leads the reader to look around at the people them, and how the would would be different if every fourth man* he/she looked at died. (* Using "every fourth man" as used in usage #1) – Cort Ammon – 2014-11-08T04:09:04.963

@Jasper A lot of people dislike the second usage because they believe it to be inaccurate. However, how do you order men? By age? Alphabetically by surname? By genealogical proximity to the current monarch? By Erdos-Bacon Number? These are all just arbitrary and the usage makes no claim as to how the men are ordered. If 1/4 of men are drafted then there exists an arbitrary sequence in which literally every fourth man is drafted. The usage is not inaccurate. Your other examples are slightly different - our accepted ordering for points in time is less arbitrary. – DeveloperInDevelopment – 2014-11-08T16:09:59.450

@imsotiredicantsleep I will say that despite my dispute with Jasper in the question's comments, I think they made a fully insightful point that "one in every four Americans" is more neutral than "every fourth American" which implies a very random distribution. You might tell an elite high school that "every fourth high schooler drops out of college" to scare them up a bit, even though those 1/4 of high schoolers were from inner city schools. – djechlin – 2014-11-12T05:37:23.243

@djechlin "every fourth" is not only idiomatic, but can also be literally true if we accept that the sequence is arbitrary. "One in every four" may be idiomatic, but is not literally true. There are selections of four that do not satisfy this statement. They are both perfectly acceptable. If anyone were to insist on only one of them being correct, "every fourth" has more going for it that "one in every four". – DeveloperInDevelopment – 2014-11-12T08:19:08.857

1@imsotiredicantsleep but outside of this thread people aren't insisting on one being correct, and when Fox News has a sketchy pie graph and "every fourth person dies from Obamacare" in the ticker, you shouldn't think "oh shoot, someone in my family!" even though that's probably what they were hoping you would think. – djechlin – 2014-11-12T15:33:56.557


It means that one out of four people (25%) who got the disease died.

Source: I'm a native speaker of U.S. English.


Posted 2014-11-07T17:23:42.110

Reputation: 8 151

And by stricken with the disease I mean contracted the disease or, simply, got the disease. – Adam – 2014-11-07T17:29:17.487

Also - this isn't your question, but your "question" should read either What is meant by "every fourth victim"? OR What does "every fourth victim" mean? – Adam – 2014-11-07T17:31:55.190