By Mark Zegarelli

The word percent literally means “for 100,” but in practice, it means closer to “out of 100.” For example, suppose that a school has exactly 100 children — 50 girls and 50 boys. You can say that “50 out of 100” children are girls — or you can shorten it to simply “50 percent.” Even shorter than that, you can use the symbol %, which means percent.

Saying that 50% of the students are girls is the same as saying that 1/2 of them are girls. Or if you prefer decimals, it’s the same thing as saying that 0.5 of all the students are girls.

This example shows you that percents, like fractions and decimals, are just another way of talking about parts of the whole. In this case, the whole is the total number of children in the school.

You don’t literally have to have 100 of something to use a percent. You probably won’t ever really cut a cake into 100 pieces, but that doesn’t matter. The values are the same. Whether you’re talking about cake, a dollar, or a group of children, 50% is still half, 25% is still one-quarter, 75% is still three-quarters, and so on.

Any percentage smaller than 100% means less than the whole — the smaller the percentage, the less you have. You probably know this fact well from the school grading system. If you get 100%, you get a perfect score. And 90% is usually A work, 80% is a B, 70% is a C, and, well, you know the rest.

Of course, 0% means “0 out of 100” — any way you slice it, you have nothing.