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.

  • 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
    Nov 7, 2014 at 22:48
  • @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. Nov 8, 2014 at 16:35
  • @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
    Nov 8, 2014 at 16:58
  • @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
    Nov 11, 2014 at 18:58
  • 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. Nov 12, 2014 at 2:57

2 Answers 2


"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.

  • 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
    Nov 7, 2014 at 18:35
  • 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
    Nov 8, 2014 at 4:09
  • @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. Nov 8, 2014 at 16:09
  • @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
    Nov 12, 2014 at 5:37
  • 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
    Nov 12, 2014 at 15:33

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

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

  • And by stricken with the disease I mean contracted the disease or, simply, got the disease.
    – Adam
    Nov 7, 2014 at 17:29
  • 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
    Nov 7, 2014 at 17:31

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