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High Odds or Low Odds?

Be careful when using "high" and "low" to describe odds.

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
Episode #756
a notebook with handwritten high and low odds
The Quick And Dirty

"Low odds" mean something is likely, and "high odds" mean something is unlikely, but many people get the two confused.

High odds mean that if you’ve placed a bet, you’ll win a high payout; and low odds mean that if you’ve placed a bet, you’ll win a lower payout.

What are low odds?

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Low odds are something like 2-to-1 against. These odds mean something is somewhat likely to happen.

  • The odds are low that Squiggly will ask for a chocolate dessert. Squiggly loves chocolate.
  • The odds are low that there will be an earthquake in California in the next decade. 

If you had made a 2-to-1 bet for $1 that Squiggly would ask for a chocolate dessert, and he did, you would win $2.

What are high odds?

High odds would be something like 99-to-1 against. If you bet on a team with those odds, you’d be happy if they won because you'd win a lot of money, but these aren't the odds you want if you need something to happen because 99-to-1 is a long shot.

Here are two more examples:

  • The odds are high that Squiggly will participate in the X Games.
  • The odds are high that there will be an earthquake in Phoenix in the next hour. 

If you had made a 99-to-1 bet for $1 that there’d be an earthquake in Phoenix and then there was one, you’d win $99. High odds yield a high payout.

If that feels backwards to you, don’t feel bad. I found it confusing too—so much so that I consulted with a mathematician to make sure I was getting it right. 

Odds and probability are not the same thing

Mathematically, odds and probability are not the same thing. A high probability does mean that something is more likely to happen. But colloquially, outside the world of mathematics, many people treat odds and probability as the same thing.

Further complicating matters, odds for the same event can be presented in different ways. For example, one person might think of the odds of rolling a six on a regular six-sided die as 1-to-5 in favor, and another person might think of the odds as 5-to-1 against.

‘High odds’ and ‘low odds’ are confusing

The problem is that the phrases “high odds” and “low odds” are confusing. When you talk about odds being high, your reader can interpret that as meaning that something is likely or unlikely. The same goes with calling odds “low.”

What should you say?

To be clear in your writing, to make sure everyone understands what you mean, it’s better to describe the likelihood of something happening in a different way. Instead of saying the odds are high or low, you can say there's a “good chance” or a “high probability” of something happening if you mean it's likely. And if you must use odds, it’s better to say they are good or bad, instead of high or low.

That’s the safest bet. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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