Grammar 101 ‘Fewer’ or ‘Less

This is another of those conundrums we all face when we are working with words. Do I say ‘fewer vases’ or ‘less vases’? The answer is simple: if you can count the items you are talking about, you use ‘fewer’ and if you can’t count them, you use ‘less’.

So, some examples:

I have fewer / less stationery now than I had at the start of the year.

Can you count ‘stationery’? Try it: One stationery, two stationery, three … Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? So, the correct way to say this is:

I have LESS stationery now than I had at the start of the year.

But you can count pens, can’t you? So let’s try the same sentence, substituting ‘pens’ for ‘stationery’.

I have fewer / less pens now than I had at the start of the year.

The same question applies: can you count pens? One pen, two pens, three pens. Yep, pens are ‘countable’ nouns, so you can use ‘fewer’.

I have FEWER pens now than I had at the start of the year.

One way to tell if you use fewer or less is to decide if the noun you are describing is singular (there is just one item or category of items being discussed) or plural (you’re talking about multiple units of the item). If it’s singular, you use ‘less’ and if it’s plural, you use ‘fewer’.

Another way to work out which word to use, is to remember that those aisles at the supermarket which have ’15 items or less’ are GRAMMATICALLY INCORRECT. Of course, we use ‘less’ in this context, as we’re all used to this expression. We’d never change these signs; they’d look odd with ’15 items of fewer’, wouldn’t they? But they are grammatically incorrect. So, if you can remember that, you can remember which word to use in other examples.

Of course, English being the complex language that it is, there are exceptions to this rule when the quantity mentioned is considered a single entity. This is why we can say ‘Entries must be 50 words or less’ and ‘Stopping distance must be 10 metres or less’.

When in doubt, rewrite the sentence so that the problem disappears. ‘I don’t have as many pens now as I had at the start of the year’ completely removes the problem. And will probably result in fewer headaches for all concerned.

 

 

Looking forwards, not backwards

At this time of year it’s tempting to look back at the past twelve months and lament all the things we haven’t managed to complete – that 10 Kilometre fun run, that veggie patch, those circus trapeze lessons. Or to set yourself unrealistic goals for the new year.

We feel we should have completed our novel, professional development course or that Twitter marketing program and that this year we will knuckle down and do it all, for sure!

Neither of these thought patterns is useful.

Instead, I’d suggest you consider all the things you did complete in your writing life.

You may have joined a critique group or attended a conference. Or perhaps you went for long walks and thought about your characters’ motivations. Maybe you spent time with a sick parent or child and could only do the cryptic crossword to keep your brain thinking about words.

No matter what small or seemingly insignificant effort you’ve been able to manage, be grateful that you’ve had that time and that you’ve persisted with your writing.

A good friend of mine, who is also a great writer, once told me that when life gets in the way of your writing, the tiny scraps you do get done are worth celebrating.

These tiny efforts mean you haven’t given up, you’ve had a go, that you scraped together fifteen minutes of writing that you wouldn’t have managed otherwise.
Even if no physical document comes out of the process, you’ve started training yourself to grab every minute you have available, so that when you do have more time, you won’t waste it.

It’s great advice, no matter if you are looking after small children or elderly parents, or in a job that doesn’t allow thinking time, or you’re working every possible hour to pay the rent. If you really want to do this writing thing, hang in there. All those fifteen minutes may not amount to much, but you won’t have forgotten how to write when you suddenly find yourself with a whole day to devote to your text.

So my advice is to be realistic, be kind to yourself, and keep plugging away at it.
Good luck!

Grammar 101: The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe

Now, don’t get me wrong; this is not a dig at greengrocers.

Those hard-working people know lots more about fruit and veg than I do, so I don’t actually mind if they occasionally put an apostrophe in the wrong spot.

Writing is not their area of expertise, just as knowing when white sweet potato is in season isn’t my core business.

However, in my work as a writing teacher and manuscript assessor, I often find that people don’t understand when apostrophes should be used.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Apostrophes are a way to indicate possession, that is, what belongs to whom.  For example:

  • ‘He was sitting in Peter’s chair’

is a way of saying:

  • ‘He was sitting in the chair that belongs to Peter.’

Not only does the apostrophe in “Peter’s” indicate possession, it makes the sentence simpler.

Apostrophes also indicate contractions and omissions, that is, where words and letters have been left out to make a shortened form. For example:

  • It’s my turn to choose the movie

This is a contraction of :

  • It is my turn to choose the movie.

Similarly, if you were to say:

  • Let’s eat pasta for dinner

This would be a contraction of:

  • Let us eat pasta for dinner.

Another example is:

  • ‘Tis a lovely day!

which is a slightly old-fashioned, if poetic, way of saying:

  • It is a lovely day!

There are many other examples of contractions and omissions, but the most common include: don’t (do not), can’t (cannot), won’t (will not), shouldn’t (should not), wouldn’t (would not), would’ve (would have), haven’t (have not), and should’ve (should have).

One thing to remember in all of this is that an apostrophe is almost never used to indicate a plural. Which brings us back to the greengrocer’s apostrophe again.

It’s never correct to write:

  • Banana’s $4.99 / k

What should really be written is:

  • Bananas $4.99 / k

The only time it is acceptable to use an apostrophe to indicate a plural is in unusual plurals that are also in lower case. For example:

  • Mind your p’s and q’s
  • Remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Getting this right is not a matter of being pedantic, it’s about clarity. When I see “Banana’s $4.99 / k”, I immediately wonder what belongs to the bananas.

At the fruit shop, this isn’t going to be an issue, but in business, it could have lasting impacts. Anything that takes your readers away from the message you are trying to convey is a bad thing. And simple errors like these can make you look unprofessional.

Want to know more? Ask a question or leave a comment.

 

Grammar 101: I or me?

Whenever I hear someone say ‘Give it to Helen and I’ or ‘Just between you and I’, I want to scream.

Sorry, I’m not usually that pedantic about grammar, but this one really gets me going.

This error seems to have arisen from childhood memories of our mothers correcting us as children. You know the scenario – you’ve said: “Mum, me and Peter are going to the park’ And your mother has said, almost as a reflex: ‘Peter and I are going to the park, dear.’

So, we’ve all remembered the construction ‘Peter and I’.

Unfortunately, while Mum was right in this case, the Australian public seems to have taken this example as a universal rule, at the same time as forgetting about poor old ‘me’.

Let me say loud and clear: it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘me’ in around 50% of cases.

So, how do you know when it’s ‘I’ or ‘me’?

The answer is simple: take the other person out of the sentence and try ‘I’ or ‘me’ and you will know which form to use.

For example, do you say: ‘

  • Please give it to Helen and I

or

  • Please give it to Helen and me?

First, take the other person out of the sentence. You now have two options:

  • Please give it to [Helen and] I
  • Please give it to [Helen and] me.

Which one sounds right?

Of course, it’s the second one. You would NEVER say ‘Please give it to I’. So the correct form is:

  • Please give it to Helen and me.

In the example of ‘Just between you and I/me’, it’s a little more tricky, but if you change the other person to a thing, say a door, it makes more sense:

  • I couldn’t escape because the murderer was between the door and I.

or

  • I couldn’t escape because the murderer was between the door and me.

Again, the second version is right.

So, whenever you are stuck and can’t work out whether it’s ‘I’ or ‘me’, do the two tests above, and you are sure to find the right answer.

And for those of you who would like a more detailed explanation, in a nutshell, it is the ‘case’ of the pronoun (I /me) that determines which one you use. ‘I’ is subjective case (the ‘I’ is doing the action) and ‘me’ is the objective case (the action is being done to, or in relation to, ‘me’). There are scores of articles and books you can read, but this one from Grammarly is a good place to start: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/grammar-basics-what-is-grammar-case/