Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Weekly Vocab Builder

This week's list is a hodgepodge of words not often used. Try one out!

You can also get Vocab Builder daily, Monday through Friday, through my Twitter posts. Follow @ebrenner to get it!

This is my last post until 2010. Have a great holiday, everyone!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Making Fewer Mistakes, Not Less

Why do we say:
We have less money to buy fewer groceries.
Instead of:
We have less money to buy less groceries.
We have fewer money to buy less groceries.
Because grammar, the mechanics of language, matters. Said Melissa Biro in a recent LinkedIn discussion on less and fewer: "Does grammar matter? Do the nuts and bolts in your car's engine matter? Only if you want the car to run smoothly/only if you want communication to flow." We want our writing to communicate our messages, our meaning. We want to take the ideas in our heads and transfer them to our readers. And when the mechanics of language are wrong or seem off, our writing doesn't go smoothly and something gets lost in the translation to our readers. I don't know about you, but that second example sentence gave me pause and that last one made me cringe.

The Difference Between Less and Fewer

To begin with, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines less as "constituting a more limited number or amount." It defines fewer as "a smaller number of persons or things." The definitions themselves point to the terms' different usage. Less refers to a mass of something (mass noun), whereas fewer refers to something we can count (countable noun). Less is generally used for mass nouns (less sand, less meaning), while fewer is used for countable nouns (fewer books, fewer children). Said another way, less is for singular nouns (less pride, less flour) and fewer is for plural nouns (fewer emotions, fewer flowers).


You knew there would be a wrinkle, right? It wouldn't be English without one. Less, or more properly less than, can also be used for time, amounts, or distances:
  • She has less than three weeks to complete her manuscript.
  • I've saved less than $1,000 this year.
  • The children walked less than two miles to the store.
In these cases, although a specific amount of time, money, or distance is given, the meaning is for some unspecified amount less than that specified.

And of course, language is changing all the time. Bryan A. Garner notes in the latest edition of Garner's Modern American Usage that less is appearing more frequently in places where fewer once did. Garner offers this example: "You will have less [read fewer] people to call and haunt about paying for their outfits and buying their accessories." "Advice for the Bride," Boston Herald (Mag.), 19 Oct. 1997, at 6. (507)

My own reaction, and perhaps yours as well, to my initial example sentences bear this out, too. Less groceries doesn't offend me quite as badly as fewer money. And let's not forget the classic example:

Garner cites the "12 items or less" lane as a big part of less overtaking fewer in some cases. According to Garner's Language-Change Index, this error is at stage 3: "commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage."


  • Less is used for mass nouns, such as music and education.
  • Fewer is used for count nouns, such as lyrics and classes.
  • Less is also used for time, amounts, and distances: 12 hours, $3, 10 miles.
  • Be aware that less is being used more often for fewer (12 items or less); while it is widespread, the careful writer should avoid it.
Have questions on less vs. fewer or another grammar point? Drop me a line or leave it in the comments below.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Please Ignore

Trying to claim my blog on Technorati. Please ignore this post.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Weekly Vocab Builder

Some uncommon words to enliven your writing:
  • Sojourner: a visitor; a traveler who stays somewhere for a short time
  • Aha moment:  epiphany; a moment of intellectual discovery
  • Punctilious: meticulous; taking note of small details
  • Forfend: to forbid; also to protect
  • Incarnadine: blood-red; also to make such a color
You can also get Vocab Builder daily, Monday through Friday, through my Twitter posts. Follow @ebrenner to get them!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dash It All

Hyphens, and Em-dashes, and En-dashes, Oh My!

Hyphens and dashes are common pieces of punctuations that can really improve your writing—if you know how to use them. Hyphens can show relationship between words and numbers. Em-dashes can lend your writing a bit of excitement. And en-dashes can show a range in an elegant manner. Today, a brief rundown of what they are and how to use them.

The Hyphen (-)

It's just a little horizontal line, but the hyphen is a handy piece of punctuation. Among its many uses:
  • To join two words in a compound word, such as a phrasal adjective:  brand-new blogger
  • To join two names in a compound name: Robert Smith-Jones
  • To show word divisions: tan-ta-lize
  • To separate characters: 555-123-4567
  • In e-mail addresses and URLs
Note, however, that adverbs that end in -ly are not hyphenated in an adjective phrase as a rule: lovingly made mittens. I notice this a lot from writers who use AP Style, and it drives me crazy. Did AP once say to use a hyphen with a phrasal adjective containing an -ly adverb? (Honestly, I don't know. If you do, tell me!) And because I've said this is the rule, I'm sure someone will come up with an exception to it. If so, please leave it in the comments below.

Did you notice another use of the hyphen? It can be used to show prefixes and suffixes, as in -ly.

The Em-Dash (—)

The em-dash is so called because it is the width of the capital m in the same font. Often on the Web (and back in the day, on a typewriter), it is represented by two hyphens (--), though you can use one of the ASCII codes: ampersand-pound-8212-semi-colon or ampersand-mdash-semi-colon. Some style guides put a space before and after it (e.g., AP Style); some don't have a space on either side of it (e.g., Chicago). Either way, the em-dash's most common use is to set off a part of the sentence, usually with strong emphasis. You could also use a comma, a colon, or parentheses to set off the text, but be sure to match the punctuation's strength with your words' emphasis.

Don't forget if you set off a word or phrase in the middle of the sentence, you need a matching set of punctuation marks. That is, if you introduce a phrase with an em-dash, you must also end the phrase with an em-dash. Same applies if you go with a less-emphatic punctuation mark.

Grammar Girl has a helpful post on em-dashes versus colons. This has stayed with me:
A dash also introduces extra material, but, well, a dash is quite a dramatic punctuation mark. A dashing young man is certainly not an ordinary young man, and if you're dashing off to the store, you're not just going to the store, you're going in a flurry.

The En-Dash (–)

The en-dash is half the width of an em-dash (ASCII codes: ampersand-pound-8211-semi-colon and ampersand-ndash-semi-colon). I see fewer and fewer en-dashes in everyday copy; it seems to be relegated to very formal writing only. Which is too bad, because the en-dash is a useful little piece of punctuation:
  • It can represent the word to in a range: 2001–2009. Used this way, both ends of the ranges are included, which is a fine point often ignored these days. And with the en-dash, you don't need the from to precede your range: The Christmas sale, running SaturdayMonday, will offer great savings.
  • It can join a phrasal adjective when part of phrase is an open compound: New Mexicobased.
  • It can represent a range with no ending: 2001.

Further Reading

These resources offer deeper discussions into hyphens and dashes, as well as explain a couple other, rarer dashes (so rare that I've never used them).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Weekly Vocab Builder

This week's list of words is a short one, but I think they're worth your effort:
  • Skullduggery: deception, fraud, subterfuge.
  • Jack-up: a drilling rig used offshore; also an increase, as in price
  • Eviscerate: to disembowel; to take away a vital part.
  • Cri de coeur: literally, a cry of the heart (French); an impassioned cry, usually of protest.

A Request

A friend asked me to highlight Spanish words in the Vocab Builder. What foreign words, Spanish or otherwise, do you use to give your writing a dash of exotic or worldliness? E-mail me, and I'll highlight them in a future blog post.

And don't forget to follow me on Twitter to get the Vocab Builder every weekday!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Are You a Grammar Ninja?

Sometimes one grammar quiz just isn't enough. OK, maybe if you're a grammar geek like me, one isn't enough, but it's probably more than enough for the rest of the world. Still, sometimes you need to brush up on your grammar skills. Herewith, then, some quiz sites, a widget and a podcast, and one very addictive game.


  • UsingEnglish.com. UsingEnglish offers many grammar tests and will keep track of the tests you've taken and your scores, a very useful function. Although you have to register to use the site, registration is quick and free.
  • Capital Community College's Interactive Quizzes. If you don't want to register with a site, check out CCC's quizzes. The site's loaded with them, and you can skip the registration process.
  • Internet TESL Journal's Self-Study English Grammar Quizzes. Internet TESL Journal's done us the favor of ranking its quizzes as easy, medium, or difficult. The downside is that you aren't inputting your answers anywhere. Do the quizzes in your head or on a piece of paper, then click on the answer drop-down menus to find out the correct answer.
  • Purdue OWL's Exercise Pages. The plus here is that you get a lesson before you do the quiz. On the OWL site, click on a topic in the left nav bar, such as "Appositives," and read the brief lesson. When you're ready, in the left nav click on the exercise, like "Apppositives Exercise." Again, you'll need to do the quiz in your head or on paper. Click "Go to answers" when you're ready to grade yourself.
  • Dave's ESL Cafe. The grammar and the writing exercises offered at Dave's ESL Cafe may be a bit easy for a native English speaker, but they're still good practice. And the site will score your quizzes for you.
  • EnglishClub.com's grammar and vocab quizzes. EnglishClub also categorizes the difficulty level of its quizzes. At least a couple quizzes I took fed me one question at a time. Do yourself a favor and click the link to see all the questions at once. You'll save yourself a lot of clicking.

A Widget and a Podcast

Grammar Girl, which is a great podcast you can subscribe to, has a widget for your site. I've added it to this blog and it's been on my iGoogle page forever. The quiz itself doesn't change very often, but you can share your love of grammar with your own readers on your site. Try it out!

The Game

Finally, a little bit of fun (warning: it's addictive!): Grammar Ninja. Begin by choosing your level: Beginner Ninja, Skilled Ninja, or Master Ninja. You can even create your own sentences for Grammar Ninja: download the Grammar Ninja Sentence Creator and follow the directions in the ReadMe PDF.

What are your favorite quiz or lesson sites? Share them in the comments section below!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Weekly Vocab Builder

One of the things I love about words is how they can sometimes take on a personality that mirrors their definitions. I found this poem in one of my son's poetry books recently that exemplifies this idea:
Jittery seems a nervous word;
snuggle curls up around itself.
Some words fit their meanings so well:
Abrupt. Airy. And my favorite--

which means: having lots of syllables.
--"Word Watch," Linda Sue Park
Here are some words to give life to your writing this week. Which do you think sound like their definitions?
  • Solidarity: unified.
  • Unfriend: New Oxford American Dictionary's Word of the Year means to remove someone from a social media network.
  • Black Sunday: April 14, 1935, on which the worst of the dust storms took place in the Dust Bowl. For more on the Dust Bowl, check out this American Experience episode.
  • Green trade war: what will occur if the US adopts carbon caps.
  • Frowzy: unkempt.
  • Soporific: sleepy.
And here's a bonus word. That poem above is a sijo poem: a Korean form of poetry not too different from haiku. In English, the sijo generally has three lines with 14 to 16 syllables each; sometimes the poem is broken into six lines. The last line offers a twist, some unexpected ending. If you want to know more, check out these sites: And the book the poem came from is lovely. Use this link to order it for young poetry lovers in your life (my own is enamored with it): Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems).