Less Stuff, Fewer Things

by sue on October 20, 2011

Less Stuff Fewer ThingsA  few days ago, I heard a loud groan from downstairs. It sounded like a husband in pain. I went down to investigate. There he was, doing the crossword. The clue was “Less.” The answer was “Fewer.” Correct grammar had suffered another loss.

Less and fewer are not interchangeable. Less goes with a singular noun. Fewer is used with a plural. Less money – fewer coins. Less food – fewer biscuits. Less time – fewer hours. Less power – fewer kilowatts.  Less trouble – fewer troubles. Less laughter – fewer laughs. In summary, you have less stuff and fewer things.

My first resource in any dispute over language is The Canadian Press Stylebook.  Updated regularly, this guide to correct English was developed for journalists and has been adopted by business communicators, publishers and public relations practitioners across Canada. It has saved me hours of debate and struggle over my lifetime of writing. It confidently declares:

fewer Use with plurals: fewer bills
less Use with singulars: less sugar

Other sources are less confident. According to my second favourite resource, Fowler’s Modern English Usage,   “Fewer is used with plural nouns (fewer books) and collective nouns (fewer people) and indicates number, whereas less is used with singular nouns and indicates amount (less money, less happiness). However, there is an extensive no man’s land between these two positions.” Then come several paragraphs explaining occasions when less might be OK with a plural noun.

The debate rages in many places, the Correct Grammarians pitted against the Evolving Languagers.

I suspect part of the problem people have honouring the distinction between less and fewer is that the opposite of both is more. We have more money and more coins, more food and more biscuits, more laughter and more laughs.

What’s not a laugh are those crazy collective nouns. Welcome to the English-speaking world. Take people, for example. It looks kind of singular – no S – but it’s about a crowd. When we’re talking about a crowd of individuals, the correct form is fewer people, not less people. And less crowds is never correct.

Why does correct grammar matter? Well, as I see it, when more people agree on the meaning and use of words, there are fewer misunderstandings and less confusion. I’ll say no more.


It’s Plain Language Day!

by sue on October 13, 2011

I’m writing this on the evening before the first annual International Plain Language Day. I’m writing carefully, crossing out words like ‘unambiguous’ and ‘unlawful’ and replacing them with ‘clear’ and “a crime.’ Even for a dedicated clarity crusader, it takes some conscious effort to write simply.

On October 13, 2010, the United States passed the Plain Writing Act.  This law means the US government has to promote “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” Around the world, people in the clear language movement got excited. It looked as if a big, powerful, influential nation was making it a crime to confuse people, at least in writing. It was a signal that gobbledygook, bafflegab, legalese, corporate speak and mumbo jumbo might be on the way out.

Back in the 1970s, Citibank translated its loan contracts into plain language. They were making people sign legal documents, why not help people understand what they were getting into? The Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Bankers Association joined the movement. Soon financial contracts, insurance policies, residential leases and other documents could be read without a lawyer standing by to translate.

I stumbled upon plain language in university. Not in the classroom, likely the last place we’ll find it, but in volunteer work. I was working with students who were almost old enough to drop out of school but could not read. They struggled with books written for their age level. They couldn’t read cereal boxes, instructions and government forms. Books written at their reading level – “See Spot run and jump” – were of no interest to teens. So I wrote stories for my students. As I wrote, I noticed that I had learned to write ‘fancy,’ rather than ‘plain’ and had to work my brain hard to keep things simple. Why was that so?

I was the product of a good education. Wonderful teachers worked hard to polish our writing, in two official languages. They taught us to create complex sentences out of simple ones. Adverbs, adjectives, similes, metaphors, tenses, footnotes and commas in the right places earned us gold stars and high marks. So we threw them all into our writing, along with other goodies from the grammar books. We were going to sound smart. And we did.

But sounding smart isn’t always smart. Today, we know that many people can’t understand what we write. They may lack education, reading ability, English skills or interest. We aren’t reaching them when we use big words and complex sentence structure. To be better understood by more people, we need to sound clear. That’s smart.

Instead of, “The regulator is to be turned to the right to prevent the distribution of the fluid,” just “Turn the tap to the right to shut off the water.” Whether they are barely literate or highly literate, people are more likely to understand you. Even people with PhDs prefer language that:

  • is in the active voice (Who did what to whom)
  • uses short sentences (One idea, one sentence)
  • avoids multisyllabic long words (Don’t make people look up words. They won’t. They’ll skip it or make up the meaning.)

Those are just three of many techniques to make your writing clear. They’re my favourites since they deliver a lot of understanding for a little work. Use them to celebrate International Plain Language Day – or any day you happen to be writing.

Here’s a link to some plain language resources.


Oooooooh, I Love Wordles

by sue on September 11, 2010

I love wordles, those decorative arrangements of words (they call them ‘word clouds’) that give you a picture of your writing. You can copy any text to the wordle web site and see a graphic depiction of your writing. It omits articles and punctuation, but leaves full words. The more often a word is used, the larger the text.

The wordle to the left was created from the welcome text, at the top of this blog. You can fool around with the arrangement, colours and typefaces to get something you find pleasing.

Wordles are more than decorative. They can be useful, too. As writers, we can use wordle to discover if we’re overusing particular words – or if we’re making a strong enough point. It’s not hard to tell, from my wordle, that this site is all about writing.

Try it for yourself! If you want a very interesting message, use the text from your résumé.


What’s Your Number?

by sue on September 8, 2010

I love it when I have to look up a point of grammar. It’s a chance to verify what I know about our language – or be smacked by something I didn’t know. I was recently called upon to “rule” on an issue being debated at a client’s office. It involved a troublesome number.

The question was this: Is it correct to say, “a number of [whatevers] have started?” Or should it be “has started?” Folks sensed the first was correct but the more everyone thought about it the less sure they became. Their minds filled with rules about collective nouns and whatnot.

I went to my trusty copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage for an entertaining romp through the grammar rules. The distinction, it appears, is between Anumber andTHEnumber. Is it the number that’s important or the [whatevers].

“The noun phrase, a number of + plural noun normally takes a plural verb in both British and American English,” Fowler writes. “The plural noun is regarded as the ‘head’ of the noun phrase and, therefore, the real subject.” He gives the example, “A number of books by ballerinas have been published lately,” and continues, “By contrast, the expression the number of + plural noun, in which the head of the phrase is the number and not the noun, takes a singular verb.” So, if we stick with the example of dancing authors, the number of ballerinas writing books has increased.

Fowler’s one of my heroes. His no nonsense approach to grammar can serve us all well. Of course my no nonsense approach is useful, too. It’s called avoidance. It’s a whole lot easier – and clearer, because it’s in the active voice – to avoid the issue by simply writing, Many ballerinas are writing books.


Just stop it now!

by sue on September 8, 2010

Every once in a while, I make the mistake of skimming the reader comments following articles in the Globe and Mail, which claims to be Canada’s national newspaper. It’s a discouraging habit, one I’m trying to break.

The content of the comments paints an unflattering picture of Globe readers (my fellow citizens?) as unkind, intolerant, nasty, self-righteous and, alas, not too bright. This appears to be the result of anonymity mixed with alcohol and I hope there’s a PhD student studying the phenomenon.

Less evil but still bad, their grammar is frightening. In what school are they teaching people to make a word plural by adding an apostrophe before the S? This mistake is so common someone must be teaching it. It’s just too goofy for large numbers of people to develop on their own.

STOP it! To make most words plural, add an S and be done. Yes, there are exceptions, like children, geese, salmon and such. But never an apostrophe. Not even with MPs, BMWs and IOUs. (I checked with Fowler.) If you can think of any circumstance under which an apostrophe is required, please let me know. In the meantime, let’s try to stamp out this practice.


Tonight I began reading like a writer by picking up Reading Like A Writer – A Guide For People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them, by Francine Prose (Harper Collins, 2006).

Prose (great name for a writer, eh?) believes, as I do, that we learn to write well by reading good writing. She would know. She’s written more than 20 books and taught writing for over 20 years. In this well-crafted work, she shows us how to really read, word by word, sentence by sentence, digging into the mind and intention of the author. Our job is to understand the writing. She calls that “close reading,” a term I’d never heard, though it reminds me of the way I read in French and have to think about the words.

I’m loving it. I read this way when I’m editing, but not when I’m reading. When I read fiction, I read it for the story. Long descriptions of the sunset, the garden, the room or anything that doesn’t have people doing something are punished with a speedy turn of the page. I need action and interaction. In this book, Prose asks me to read a piece of fiction just for the writing.

For each writing topic – words, sentences, paragraphs – she illustrates her points with passages from authors whose work she admires, Chekhov, Joyce, Austen and others. She provides enough context for the passage to make sense, then shines a spotlight on the words each author has used to craft the images that will become a story.

What caused me to write about this book, tonight, are some of her thoughts about grammar, one of our concerns at The Writing Repair Centre. When revising our work, she suggests asking, “Is my meaning clear?” and, “Is it grammatical?” She finds it strange how many beginning writers ignore grammar. For Prose, “grammar is always interesting, always. useful” and contributes “to the logic of thought.” She tells of a novelist friend who compares the rules of grammar, punctuation and language use to old-fashioned etiquette. Writing, he says, is “a bit like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader is the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially if you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.”

As a guide to writing etiquette, Prose recommends The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White (Macmillan, 1959). I agree. My own yellowed and crumbling copy has been used to tidy up my own writing, help me edit others’ work, settle newsroom arguments and start lively (lovely?) and entertaining conversations about misused words.

Will Reading Like A Writer improve my writing? Can’t say yet. But it’s already improved my reading. I recommend it. And Strunk & White.


Brian Clark, an entrepreneur and idea guy who Tweets as @copyblogger, posted this today.
Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips for Writing Well. Good advice for readers of this blog.


To write better – read more

by sue on December 10, 2009

Just as it’s hard to draw something you’ve never seen, it’s hard to write well if you don’t read. I think we have to make that “if you don’t read good writing.” If you spend your day reading comic books, cereal boxes and facebook updates (even mine) your writing skills are unlikely to improve.

When I ask folks I consider to be good writers how they gained that skill, there are lots of answers. Most common? “My teachers encouraged me,” and “My teachers beat it into me.” Since we can’t really control what our teachers did to us, back in elementary school, let’s look at what we can do today.

The more practical answers are “Practice!” “I read (past tense)” and “I read (present tense).” Few will argue with the value of practice in mastering any skill, so let’s turn our attention to reading.

If you grew up in a home where library cards were used more often than credit cards, your chances of being a good writer are high. Reading good writing does more than expose you to the correct rules of grammar. It exposes you to ideas – ideas expressed in words by people who care about being informative, entertaining or both.

Read the whole post!


No, I will not be lead!

by sue on December 7, 2009

I spent the afternoon in the lovely town of Elora, an artsy-craftsy, foodie haven not far from my home. I picked up a beautiful flyer inviting me to join a culinary walking tour where I can stroll the streets and enjoy the culinary delights the town presents.

“Rain or shiine,” it continued, “you will be lead through samplings of…” Lead? I don’t think so. When you lead me, I am led. The only time ‘lead’ rhymes with ‘red’ is when you are talking about that soft metal used to make weights.

This error is so common I’m almost surprised I notice it. It often shows up in résumés. I’ve been looking at a lot of resumes, lately. These marketing documents aim to show people at their best and should be error free. Alas, they’re not, and this lead/led problem is more common than it should be.

I won’t try to explain the logic of this particular rule of grammar. I’m not sure there is any. If there were, the rule about leading would be the same as the one for reading and, as a book is read, not red, you would be lead, not led. But that’s not how it works.

You are a leader. Right now, you lead me. In the future, you will lead me. But last week, you led me. You have led me for many years. I was led and am being led and will be led by you.

Leadership’s a big deal, right now. If you want to look like a leader, this is a good rule to follow.


The panda joke

by sue on December 4, 2009

A panda walks into a bar, sits down and orders a sandwich. He eats the sandwich, pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter dead.

As the panda stands up to go, the bartender shouts, “Hey! Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich!”

The panda yells back at the bartender, “Hey, I’m a PANDA! Look it up!” The bartender opens his dictionary and sees the following definition for panda:

“A tree dwelling marsupial of Asian orgin, characterized by distinct black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.”

This joke gained new prominence when
Lynne Truss used it as the title of her book,
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance
Approach to Punctuation.