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Glossary of Chart Terms
This glossary provides a general overview of some of the technical terms used in creating and
reading charts (tables, graphs, maps, diagrams, and so on). Although it is focused on economics
and social science usage, it is not a glossary of those subjects. For definitions of economics and
personal finance terms, we recommend consulting the Econ Lowdown glossary at
Bolded terms indicate terms defined in this glossary.
Sources of the Example charts are on page 6.
If you would like to suggest a term that would enhance this glossary, please contact and we will consider adding it.

Adjustment: In economics, often used in
the phrases “seasonal adjustment” and
“inflation adjustment.” Adjustment is the
practice of tweaking or correcting the
raw data to better reflect reality or to
show a clearer trend. Adjusted data should
always have a label noting they have been
adjusted and how (Example 1).
Average: The “middle” of a set of numbers.
Average is usually synonymous with mean.
Another “middle” number is the median.
Axis: One of two lines used to pinpoint locaExample 1: Adjustment
tions on a graph. The axes (plural of axis)
cross each other perpendicularly. The horizontal axis is commonly called the x-axis, and the vertical axis is commonly called the y-axis. The
Cartesian coordinates of a point on a graph can be found by determining the point’s location
on the x- and y-axes.
Binary map: A map with regions divided into two classes. A map of the United States with “red
states” and “blue states” is a binary map.
Broken axis: A horizontal or vertical axis in which part of the scale on the x-axis or y-axis has been
omitted to save space. A broken axis is sometimes indicated with a break in the axis line, two
slash marks across the axis line, or squiggly marks on the axis line between the starting and
ending points of the break (Example 2). A broken axis can make a graph misleading or harder
to interpret.

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Glossary of Chart Terms
Cartesian coordinates: A pair of axes numbers
(usually for “x” and “y”) that indicate a given
point on a graph. For example, “12, –5” indicates a point that is 12 points to the right of
0 on the x-axis and 5 points below 0 on the
Categorical data: Data sorted or classified by
specific criteria, such as education, nationality,
or survey answer. To create a chart that
groups data, such as a pie chart, raw data
must first be transformed into categorical data.
Causation: The act of causing something—for
example “A” causes “B.” The implication
Example 2: Broken Axis
that data showing an event or trend that is
correlated with another set of data is also the
cause of or caused by that other event or trend and that future changes in one dataset will spur
changes in the other. Most statistics cannot prove causation even with strong correlation.
Chart: Any graphical representation of information, such as a graph, table, diagram, or map. Chart
is a general term and doesn’t indicate a specific form of visualization. The term “chart” is used
in many fields, not just statistics.
Correlation: The relationship between things that happen or change together. With data, a positive
correlation means that changes in two or more data series happen at the same time or at the
same rate and a negative correlation means that changes in two or more data series happen in
opposition to one another—one value goes up as the other goes down. Correlation does not
necessarily imply causation.
Data: Information with values that measure or represent variables. In economics, the word “data”
usually means quantitative, numerical data, rather than qualitative, descriptive data, but is used
for both.
Data point: A single unit of information, usually represented as a number. Also known as a
Dataset or data series: A collection of related data points (e.g., city temperature on the first of
every month or the heights of students in a classroom). A data series made up of similar data
points connected by time is known as a time series.
Dataviz: A common abbreviation for “data visualization” that refers to any graphical depiction of
data, such as charts, including infographics. See also chart.
Diagram: See infographic.

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provided the user credits the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis,


Glossary of Chart Terms
Dispersion: A measure of how “spread out” the points in a dataset are. A high (or large) dispersion
means the highest and lowest values are far apart; a low (or small) dispersion means the values
are clustered close together. For example, two datasets might have the same average, mean,
or median but have very different dispersions: The average age in a class with students who
are 14, 15, and 16 is the same as one with students who are 10, 15, and 20 but the dispersions
are very different.
Distribution: A list or presentation of all the values of a dataset and how often each of those values
occur. When displayed on a chart, a “normal distribution” will have the most common values
exactly in the middle, with less-common values on either side. This shape is known as the “bell
curve.” A dataset with an asymmetrical distribution is skewed (see skew).
Graph: A diagram that uses points and lines to represent the variation of one variable in comparison with one or more other variables. Graphs are commonly drawn as a “+” or “L” shape with
a horizontal x-axis and a vertical y-axis.
Gross: In economics, finance, and accounting, gross is the total income, profit, or interest before
deductions, depreciation, or losses are subtracted to get the net amount.
Index: A kind of measurement, or a dataset that uses that kind of measurement as its unit. Indexes
measure change in a created or composite value (rather than a standard observation or measurement). Index values and ranges are created in many different ways, so two indexes may be
very different. In economics and finance, an index measures changes over time in the value of
some attribute, usually cost, against the value of the same attribute, either at a certain value or
on a given date.
Infographic: A visual representation of information used to explain something quickly and clearly.
Many infographics contain text along with illustrations and charts. Also known as a diagram.
Key: See legend.
Legend: On a chart, a list of symbols and/or terms used and their specific meanings. Also known
as a key.
Mean: An average number calculated by adding a set of numbers together and then dividing the
sum by the number of numbers. For example, the mean of the five numbers “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” is 3:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 = 15; 15 divided by 5 is 3.
Median: The middle number in a sorted list of numbers. The median of “1, 2, 5, 60, 70” is 5. When
a list has an even number of numbers, the median is the average of the two central numbers.
For example, the median of “1, 2, 3, 50, 60, 70” is 26.5: (50 + 3)/2 = 26.5. Median is often used
instead of mean to represent the central tendency of a dataset if there are significant outliers
that would skew the data, as can be the case with average income. For example, in a group of
six people, if five people make $40,000 and one person makes $1,000,000, the mean income is
$200,000. The median income of those same six people is $40,000. The median income is a better
representation of the central tendency of the group.

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Glossary of Chart Terms
Margin of error: The amount of difference between the results of a survey or poll using a sample
and the results if the entire population were surveyed. Surveys with a high margin of error
should be considered less reliable.
Methodology: The procedure and calculations used to produce, adjust (see adjustment), or revise (see revision) a dataset.
Mode: The most common number in a set of numbers. The mode of “1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 5” is 4. A set
of numbers can have more than one mode.
Net: The remaining amount after deductions have been subtracted from the gross amount of something. For example, net exports (defined simply) are gross exports minus imports. A net value less
than 0 indicates a deficit (a loss).
Nominal: In economics and finance, indicates the current value of a given measurement, so it has
not been adjusted for inflation but is presented “as is.” Also known as “market value” and
“current value.” For example, the nominal value of a quarter in 1934 is 25 cents. The real
inflation-adjusted value of that quarter in today’s currency would be different. Because this
adjective is not uniformly applied, consider every reported value to be nominal unless otherwise
Observation: In economic data, an observation is generally synonymous with a single data point
on a given table or in a time series and includes both a data value (a measurement) and a time
value (when the data value was recorded). Because economics is a social science, economic data
are usually observations rather than measurements alone. For example, the measurement “$17
trillion” is not a valid observation for gross domestic product, but “Quarter 1, 2015: $17 trillion”
is a valid observation because it includes both a data value and a time value.
Outlier: A data point in a dataset that is significantly different from the rest. On a graph of a
dataset, an outlier is not in line with the trend of the rest of the data or is outside the highest
concentration of data points.
Point: See data point.
Population: A complete, inclusive group (usually people, but could also be organizations, plants,
or animals) in a given place (e.g., a city, nation, or neighborhood) or a group with a particular
characteristic (e.g., speaking a given language) that is defined and studied to gather data. Social
scientists usually use a sample to study a population.
Raw data: Data as they were originally recorded, with no adjustments or alterations. Removing
obvious errors and applying an adjustment are common changes made to raw data.
Real data: In economic or financial data, “real” or “real value” indicates the data have been
adjusted (see adjustment) for inflation. Unadjusted data are referred to as nominal data.
Real value: See real data.

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Glossary of Chart Terms
Response rate: For a survey, the number of people (or organizations, families, or groups) that
answer the questions. It can be difficult to judge the accuracy of a survey (see also margin of
error) without knowing the response rate.
Revision: A change made to data to correct inaccuracies or account for additional information. A
lot of economic data are revised on a regular schedule, and the revisions are applied retroactively.
Because of revision, an observation for a historical date might not be the same value that was
recorded on that date.
Sample: A subset of a larger group of people or things that is measured (studied or surveyed) to
learn about the entire group. Sampling allows researchers to study groups without studying that
group’s entire population. Studying only a sample can result in sampling error. Knowing the
size and makeup of a sample can help you judge the validity of the research that uses it.
Sampling error: Mistakes and misinterpretations caused by observing or measuring a sample of a
population instead of the whole population. The difference between the characteristics of the
whole population and the sample group is the sampling error. For instance, if 20 people in a
full population of 100 people have blue eyes and 80 have brown eyes, but a random sample of
25 people includes all 20 blue-eyed people, the sampling error would incorrectly imply that the
majority of the population has blue eyes. See also margin of error.
Series: See data series and time series.
Significance: See statistical significance.
Skew: A dataset with skew has a lopsided distribution of data when presented on a graph.
Skewed data often have a mean that is illogical or misleading. See the average income example
in median.
Standard deviation: A measurement of the amount of variation (or dispersion) among points in
a dataset. Not to be confused with margin of error.
Statistical significance: A mathematical calculation that indicates whether any trend or pattern
in data cannot exclusively be attributed to chance or coincidence. Statistical significance is not
the same as the practical significance or the importance of the data or research.
Survey: A form of data gathering that involves asking people questions. Nearly all survey data are
based on a sample of people from a population.
Table: An arrangement of data using rows and columns to illustrate categories of information.
Data arranged in a table are often called tabular data.
Time series: A kind of data series in which individual observations or data points are collected
over time in chronological order and at regular intervals (e.g., hourly, daily, or yearly) to show a
trend. Economics and meteorology are two fields that commonly use time series to show changes
in conditions over time.

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provided the user credits the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis,


Glossary of Chart Terms
Trend: The direction of change (or development) in a set of data. For example, data on a graph
might be said to have an “upward” or “downward” trend. Trend can also be used as a verb to
describe the way the data points seem to move over time: For example, “U.S. gross domestic
product is trending upward.” Data can have different trends over different ranges of time.
Unit: The item or the standard used for counting or measuring data in a dataset. For example, a
unit may be a currency, a person, or a created scale such as an index.

Chart 1: Adjustment: Olenin, Alice; Talbert, Lewis Emerson and United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Revised Indexes of Factory
Employment and Pay Rolls, 1919 to 1933.” Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 610, 1935, p. 13;
Chart 2: Broken Axis: U.S. Office of Management and Budget. A Citizen’s Guide to the Federal Budget: Fiscal Year 1998. February 6,
1997, p. 3;

© 2017, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Permission is granted to reprint or photocopy this lesson in its entirety for educational purposes,
provided the user credits the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis,