badness, nerd

Fewer mistakes, less embarrassment

i'm so disappointed

I’m a bit of a grammar snob, so when people make  mistakes like using “less” instead of “fewer,” I always notice, and it always bothers me.  It makes the person sound lazy or ignorant (or stupid), especially when (if I feel comfortable correcting them) they can’t tell why they’re wrong, even when I point it out.

I was shocked to discover my mom was, until recently, one of these people.  She majored in English, and I had to explain to her when it was appropriate to use “less” or “fewer.”  I figured, maybe this is a more wide-spread problem than I thought, perhaps because when you say you want more of something there’s just one way to say it: MORE, but when you want not-more, you have to think.  So let’s break it down:

Fewer is used when talking about individual items (cans of soda, grains of sand, etc.).  The easy way to remember this is to see if you can apply numbers to it: five cans of soda, six grains of sand.

Less is used when talking about amounts (water, sand, etc.).  Numbers cannot be applied to these.  Would it make sense to say, “I want six sands, please.”  No, no.

Observe:

Few = individual items
“I want a can of soda.”
“Just one?  How about six cans?”
“No, I want fewer than that.  Just one, in fact.”

Less = amounts
“How much soda do you want?”
“Just a bit.  Less than I had last time.”

Think of it this way: If a waiter asks, “How many waters do you guys want?” he’s really saying, “How many cups of water do you guys want.”  He’s just being a lazy idiot.  The answer is always “fewer,” because he’s talking about something you can count.

Something like a liquid can’t be divided and counted without changing it somehow (like pouring it into cups or freezing it into cubes); that’s a sure sign that you’re dealing with an amount, and you should use “less” when talking about diminishing it.  Individual items (like ice cubes, sugar cubes, grains of sand, etc.) should be diminished using “fewer.”

Quiz time!  Which is correct?

a) I would like less coffee.
b) I would like fewer coffees.
c) I would like less coffees.
d) I would like fewer coffee.

If you said A and B, you’re correct!  If you said anything else, reread this post until you get it, or message me and I’ll help you understand how this works.  It’s a simple way to get a handle on a part of the English language every native speaker should have mastered by adulthood.  Alas…

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goodness, life

Endless vocabulary

James Murray of the OED

April 2, 2010: I posted this on Facebook, and quickly realized that if I was going to be this hilarious and brutally clever, I needed what any self-respecting college graduate working 12-hour days needs: a blog.

English is an amazing language. With over half a million words, it’s the largest, and best-known language on the planet, and it’s still growing. But there isn’t a word for everything.

Non Sequitur
I was watching some reality TV the other day (the hair cutting one), which mostly consists of a bunch of hair stylists being super friendly one minute, then brutally snappy the next. A couple of them were having a pointless argument which I was mindlessly enjoying when I realized that one of them was using nothing but non sequiturs to win the argument. And it was working. It went something like this:

x-You don’t know how to do a pixie cut.
o-Where did you learn to cut hair?
x-New Jersey.
o-I bet it was ghetto.
x-Your pixie cut looks like crap.
o-Your pants look like crap.

I’ve had conversations like this; they make me crazy, and I’m not ashamed to say that the last time this happened (philosophy class at USC), I snapped. I ended up completely abandoning our discussion to berate this guy on derailing the conversation just to gain the illusion of victory. I remember saying things like, “Stick to the topic, or stop talking,” and “I feel like we’re having two different conversations, and yours is dumb.”

Why isn’t there a word for this person? The English language has a word for just about everything, so why not someone who depends solely upon non sequiturs to win a discussion?

Instead of making up a whole new word, I propose that this word already exists; all we need to do is modify the definition to include those brainless shells of people who choose to free associate their way through conversations.

Derailer
Though currently confined to use within the railway community, derailer is an English word for a device that intentionally takes a runaway railcar off its track. I can think of no better metaphor for people who obliterate coherent discussion with their inconsequential input on a regular basis than a device whose sole purpose is to screw up the forward progress of a strong, useful machine.

Derailer. Use it, people. Use it to shame your family, friends and coworkers into becoming more useful conversationalists, and save them from the vengeful gaze of the ghost of Productive Conversation (yes, it’s dead, you killed it).

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