Marge Simon, guest columnist for April issue
After accepting my wee ($$) bribe, Anthony Ambrogio has graciously given his column space to me for this month. Now as we writers know so well, language has always had unfortunate side effects. Whether understood or not, it can be insulting, dangerous, misleading or devastating to a person in love or to the human race. Add the matter of keeping language grammatically correct, and you face a monumental challenge! We bow to Mr. Ambrogio for his valiant monthly attempts at so doing.
Anthony often starts his columns with something he noticed en route somewhere or perhaps some flaw in common language usage brought to his immediate attention by an actual event. Thus, in keeping with his approach, I’m delighted to do the same.
Case in point: I happen to know that our illustrious Editor, Kathy Ptacek, likes chocolate. I was wondering the impossible—if she decided she needs to cut back, would she say “I need to eat fewer chocolate?” or would she say “I need to eat less chocolate”?
The answer: In a box of chocolates, the chocolates are countable and you can take one. When you have a bar of chocolate, the chocolate is uncountable and you can take some.
Ms. Ptacek refused to comment either way.
Less & fewer
Why is it so easy to confuse less and fewer? Perhaps because they both represent the opposite of the comparative adjective more. Luckily, the conundrum of less vs. fewer has a solution that is simple to remember. It involves deducing whether fewer or less will work as countable or singular in your intended sentence.
In English, we use the same word, more, for a greater number and a greater amount/quantity. There is little doubt about when to use more.
Still confused? Let’s say the L.A. chapter is holding an oyster fest. HWA President Lisa Morton has demanded more oysters. Could you give her more beer to wash them down with? Yes! Beer is both a countable and an uncountable noun. So let’s try milk.
Oysters is a countable noun; it is possible to count multiple oysters. Milk, on the other hand, is an uncountable noun; it is a liquid that we measure in terms of volume. Uncountable nouns are always singular. Therefore, we could say that Lisa would rather have less milk, more beer/beers, and fewer oysters. Of course, she wouldn’t want to be part of this example in the first place. Neither would I. It’s making me slightly nauseous.
In closing, I hope you Grammar Enthusiasts will enjoy the following bit of verse by Patti Masterton:
Oh, taxing syntax.
Thank you for this opportunity, Anthony Ambrogio! I’m sure your fans will be happy to have you back again next month!