Archive | March 2013

Less or fewer and other things – MY PET HATES of the grammatical merrygoround

The glaring errors that abound in the press, on screen, Facebook, Twitter and text messaging are a constant source of irritation to me.   You see I come from that long-forgotten band of Grammar School pupils during the fifties.  As first-formers, in our first English Language lesson we were introduced to the art of ‘parsing’ or for want of a better word, deconstructing sentences to identify the subject, verb, object, adverbs and adjectives. Somewhere along the line we must have learnt the intricacies of an infinite number of grammatical rules.

So pedantic am I that, if I am given a piece of writing for comment, my eyes will immediately pick out the misplaced apostrophe, misuse of capitals and/or the simple comma – and that is only on the first line!

So when I came across the website of The novels of David Hough I lapped up his blog about the Oxford Comma on 4th March. Apparently 3rd March was National Grammar Day. Not heard of it? No, neither had I but before you look at the link below spare some time to think of aspects of grammar and punctuation which irritate you and then, do please leave a comment so we can get a good debate going on here.

Another blog that I follow periodically is womagwriter and it was via her comment that I came to read the blog about the Oxford comma. David Hough cites the Grocer’s apostrophe as his main bugbear ie “Apple’s and Pear’s”. Yes we have all seen these signs on market stalls or greengrocers’ shelves. Womagwriter referred to Lynne Truss – Eats, Shoots and Leaves, The zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. This is a book that has pride of place on my own bookshelf. The blurb on the back of the book explains the title.

A panda eats shoots and leaves. This sentence tells us that shoots and leaves are the panda’s diet.
A panda eats, shoots and leaves, this means that the panda eats (perhaps in a café!), shoots (the chef?) and leaves (by the front door?).
Two very different meanings.

More about the apostrophe
During my teaching career I devised many tricks and examples to convey the rules of the apostrophe. Without fail, after my apostrophe debut, subsequent written work arrived with this punctuation mark before every word ending in ‘s’ so we went back to basics to talk about singular and plural – words which were new to many of my post-16 students. Likewise few knew the meaning or difference between verb/noun/adjective. One lesson saw each of my students presented with a verb on a card which they had to mime to the class, the aim to identify the verb as a ‘doing’ word.

This is my bête noire. I hear these words used incorrectly on a daily basis, often by highly-paid interviewers on television or radio. I have no grumble about the people interviewed on the street misusing these words, but for people, who are paid serious money to use the English Language for their profession, such errors are unforgiveable. This sentence may help people use the words correctly.
Less milk but fewer milk bottles
reduce that to LESS LIQUID and you have the key to correct use. You cannot count liquid.
If you can count items such as bottles then you use FEWER. Bottle is a countable noun – you may have 3 or 33
Liquid is a mass and as such is uncountable and therefore you use LESS.

Other examples of countable and uncountable nouns are as follows.
An apple (countable) so you would say David’s apple tree had FEWER apples than John’s.
Water – A shower uses LESS WATER than a bath. Water is uncountable and fits the LESS LIQUID rule.

Example: I can have LESS money than my friend, LESS small change but FEWER pound notes and FEWER coins.
Example: The unemployment figures tell us that there is LESS work available locally and FEWER jobs for unskilled people.
You cannot count WORK but you can count JOBS.

There are some tricky ones eg LESS STAFF(uncountable) but FEWER MEMBERS OF STAFF (countable)

My students relied on handouts in the days before the internet. Now all this information is in the ether. Google or Ask and you can get the answer to practically anything. However, if you have LESS money, visit your local second hand bookshop or charity shop and you may find a book which explains some basic grammar rules.
However, I would recommend Essential Grammar in Use with Answers by Raymond Murphy (elementary) – available on Amazon.