Less or Fewer

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Less or Fewer? When do we use less or fewer? A correspondent asks whether to use less or fewer in the following sentence: “…the measure failed by less than three votes.” Of all types of nouns, votes are obviously countable, since it’s the counted number that’s the important point.

The rule about using “less” for uncountable and “fewer” for countable, is quite vague. Using “less” here may be slightly less correct in formal English, but can’t be totally condemned. Here’s why:

When it comes to less or fewer Grammar Girl supports the use of fewer with countable nouns. However, Grammar Girl says the exceptions are quantities of time, money, distance, and weight. Read on to see how these are different.

When it comes to counting votes, both The Writer’s Digest blog and the English Plus Blog support fewer.

The New York Times (which I consider an authority) supports the use of fewer in this sentence. This one is interesting because it clarifies the exception beyond Grammar Girl’s categories. Use less when the quantity is considered as a whole. In its example, the number of weeks is offered as a countable quantity of time but considered as a bulk unit. This aligns with what Grammar Girl recommended since time, money, distance, and weight are usually considered as bulk units.

Finally, the Chicago Manual of Style points out that historically the usage has not been so clear. The “rule” was adopted in the 19th century, which was also a time when numerous grammatical rules were imposed in English with varying underlying grammatical logic. If one takes a descriptivist approach to grammar (Is the meaning clear? Do native speakers use this construction?) then there is no problem with “less than three votes.” It’s only a prescriptivist approach that demands adherence to the less/fewer rule for uncountable/countable nouns.

The bottom line: less is wrong-ish, but don’t get into a fight about it.

Common noun vs. proper noun: Capitalization and usage

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Common noun - proper nounCommon noun vs. proper noun is a common mistake in writing.

Here’s the rule: Proper nouns are the names of particular individuals, countries, businesses, and titles: Bob Smith, the United States of America, Macy’s, the Queen of England. Common nouns are all the rest: dirt, gold, democracy, education, cars, cats, and cucumbers.

Sometimes people like to place a random capital on a common noun just because it’s important in a sentence. Make sure the word you capitalize is a proper noun.

Dear Sir, I am a Business major from a highly rated University. I seek a job at your Company.

The rule is clear: only use a capital for actual titles, and names. A proper noun is the name of the department, the formal degree, and the specific university.

Dear Sir, I graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Business degree. I am applying to General Electric Company to gain valuable experience in the field of public utilities.

Capitalize a proper noun but not a common noun

Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell. But there are some tricky areas.

  • Use a capital when a theory or movement is based on an individual’s name: Freudianism, Darwinism.
  • Use a capital for names of religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam.
  • Use a capital for the formal name of a scientific theory: Theory of Evolution (evolution); Global Warming Theory (global warming).
  • Use a capital for the genus when using a scientific name of a species: Homo sapiens; Canis familiaris
  • Use a capital for a brand name of a pharmaceutical, but use the lower case for the generic name: Advil (ibuprofen)
  • Use a capital for a formal group of some kind: the Impressionists, the Romantics
  • Use a capital for regions of the country, but not for directions: the West (west)
  • Use a capital for recognized specific periods, but not for informal periods: the Renaissance, the Paleolithic Era (the last century).

Adverb phrase modifies what words?

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Steve asked a grammar question that led me to consider how an adverb phrase functions.Adverb phrase modifies what?

In the sentence “Generally at university you are always expected to be critical” what is the meaning of “generally”?

I answered thus: In this case, “generally” is an adverb phrase that modifies “expected.” It means on average, or most of the time, this is the expectation. The use of “generally” softens the statement “at university”. Without it, the statement is definitive. This is always true. With the addition of “generally”, the statement means “this is true most of the time.”

Steve disagreed with my answer, writing, “Don’t you think it means ‘without reference to specific details’ (i.e. “without regard to whatever a student majors in,” they are always expected to be critical).

So, according to Steve, the adverb “generally” modifies the adverb phrase “at university,” rather than the main verb “expected.”

Deconstructing the adverb phrase

A sentence that contains “generally” and “always” is self-contradictory. Either the condition is always true, or it is only true some of the time.

Initially, I said “generally” is an adverb phrase that applies to “expected”; that’s really contradictory, because clearly “always” applies to “expected.”

Steve said “generally” applies to “at university”; that’s probably better, because, as he pointed out, it could apply to some faculties, but not all. So in some faculties, you are expected to be critical all the time, while in others, you are not. Nonetheless, “at university” also applies to “expected”, which means “generally” also applies to “expected.”

A comma would help. Grammarly expects two commas to be included in this sentence.

Generally, at university, you are always expected to be critical.

(“Generally” now clearly applies to “at university. Nonetheless, the word “always” is redundant, since the condition is not always true.) But still, these two conditions both apply to the main verb “expected.”

So whether you apply “generally” to “at university” or “expected” you come back to the same thing. “Always” is redundant. The expectation of being critical is sometimes true, and sometimes not true.

An adverb phrase modifies words that it is close to

Let’s look at it from another perspective.

The main clause is “You are always expected to be critical.”
An introductory adverbial phrase clarifies when and where “At university, you are always expected to be critical.”

But this is not always true, so the additional adverbial phrase is added: “Generally, at university, you are always expected to be critical.”

By this logic, Steve’s interpretation is correct. Further, looking at proximity, “generally” is closer to “at university” than it is to “expected”, so it should be interpreted as modifying “at university”.

If we remove “at university”, the sentence becomes “Generally, you are always expected to be critical.” This is quite different from the original sentence, because “at university” is an important qualifier. In addition, the contradiction between “generally” and “always” is glaring.

Therefore, I must yield to Steve’s interpretation, that the best interpretation is that “generally” specifically applies to “at university” because “at university” needs the qualifier to make the sentence true.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the words Steve wants to hear: “You’re right and I’m wrong” since I only say those words to my wife.

His or their? He, she, or they?

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A questioner asked:

Which is correct: Thank you to every student who went out of HIS way…OR…THEIR way?

The traditional answer to this question is “his.” However, for many years, people have been looking for an alternative. Many have been proposed, but the one that seems to stick is using “their.”

This question usually comes in the form of “What subject pronoun should be used when the gender of the individual is unknown?” In this case, the options are “he” or “they.” Last year, the American Society of Linguists chose “they” as the word of the year to recognize its use as a singular pronoun. This was a controversial announcement; however, writers have been using “they” for centuries. There are many examples of this usage.

I could easily find references to cite that say “his” is the correct answer here, but there are many “rules” in English that appear in grammar books that are no longer considered valid. In fact, anyone can write a grammar book and make up any rules they like/he likes. There is no official set of grammar rules.

Since English has no official body setting grammar rules (unlike some languages), English grammarians fall into two camps: descriptive and prescriptive. Prescriptive grammarians prefer to set rules that should be followed; descriptive grammarians simply state what rules people are using to communicate.All native English speakers would understand the sentence you provided with “their” in it. There would be no ambiguity of meaning. So, I’d have to say “their” is acceptable.

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A couple or a couple of?

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A couple of birds

A couple of birds

More and more often I’m hearing the phrase a couple without the following of. I’m finding this annoying, as I’m sure are also many people who prefer their grammar consistent.

Normally a couple means two. We usually follow a couple with of to specify what kind of couple.

  • A couple of birds
  • A couple of dollars
  • A couple of miles.

But we have other words that specify numbers that do not require the preposition of:

  • A dozen donuts
  • A hundred dollars
  • A few raisins.

So it’s not completely illogical to say “a couple years ago…”

In addition, there are circumstances in which one would definitely not include of after couple. I have a couple more things to say about this.

Losing of from a couple of

Language changes over time. One of the most common areas where language changes is in the use of pronouns. If you are an English language learner, you are probably already aware that English is frustratingly inconsistent in its use of prepositions. We ride in an elevator, on the bus, on a plane, but in a car. In England, it would not be unusual to hear “Give it me,” but in North America, the phrase would be consistently “Give it to me.” Is to really necessary?

Logic tells us that in a phrase like give it, there can only be one giver and one receiver. The phrase is in the command form, so the person speaking must be the receiver. The preposition to has no real meaning since the direction of giving is clear from the nouns and verbs.

Similarly, the preposition of has no real function to distinguish a couple of birds from a couple birds. Since I hear professional journalists using this shorter construction, it’s probably something that’s quickly taking root in English. For those of us who cling to the traditional way of speaking, there’s probably no hope that this will go away.


With your permission: using “with” in an opening clause

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timeA questioner asks:

With your permission

I saw the above example for “with” as a preposition. Please explain to me its use and grammar. I always get confused by the phrases starting with “with.” I have already checked number of dictionaries for various definitions of “with” but to little avail. What is its functional role here: adjective or adverb? I hope it is not a set expression without any logic. I will be grateful if you can elaborate on the usage of ” with” as a preposition in the phrase “with your permission”?

As you mention, “with” is a preposition. That means it can act to join two nouns to create an adjective phrase (coffee with cream) or with a verb to make an adverb phrase (act with haste). When used as an introductory phrase, it is adverbial. The introductory phrase describes how the action takes place.

“With your permission” is a polite way of asking for permission before taking an action. Similar introductory adverbial phrases include:

  • With all due respect (used before contradicting something a person of higher rank has stated)
  • With all deliberate speed (indicates the action will be done as quickly as possible)
  • With caution (indicates the action will be done carefully)
  • Basically, you can begin a sentence using “with” + noun to make an adverbial phrase to modify the main verb in the sentence.

has or had? Present perfect vs. past perfect

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timeA reader asks:

I read the following sentence in a newspaper, “A man was found murdered in £400,000 Victorian house which had been converted into flats following a dispute.”
Should this be “had been” or “has been?” I’ve seen both used.

The answer has to do with the type of past tense we are using. The past perfect (had been) is used for an event that was completed relative to some other event. The progressive form is used for an activity that took place over a length of time; the past perfect form is used for an event that occurred at a point in time. See English verb tenses.

  • I had been skiing before I went to dinner. (past perfect progressive)
  • They had completed their homework before I let them watch TV. (past perfect)

The present perfect verb form is used for an action that was completed at some unknown (or stated) time in the past or for an action started in the past and continued into the present.

  • I have eaten curry.
  • The dog has chased the cat.
  • I have been a student since 2015.

In the question, the main action is “found.” This action occurred after the house was converted into flats. Therefore, the best way to state it is “…was found…which had been converted…” This way we know the conversion was before the discovery of the body. If the sentence were “…was found… which has been converted” the sense would be that the conversion occurred after the discovery. For example, “The bone was dropped by a dog, which has run away.”

The other thing about this questioner’s sentence is the final phrase “following a dispute.” The positioning of this phrase at the end of the sentence seems to say that the dispute had something to do with the conversion of the mansion into flats. We call this a misplaced modifier. To fix this sentence, we need to move the modifier closer to the words it modifies.

  • The body was found, following a dispute, in a £400,000 Victorian house which had been converted into flats.

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Is this subject singular or plural?

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One of the common questions I get is a version of “Is this subject singular or plural?” For example:

Is this sentence correct?
“A quarter of Egypt’s population use the internet.”

In this case, our minds tell us that a quarter of Egypt’s population is a lot of people, so the verb should agree with a plural subject. But this would be wrong.

According to the Blue Book of Grammar, for words that indicate portion such as percent and fraction, we should have the verb agree with the thing that they are a part of. That is, the word population is the key to understanding the agreement here. “Population” is a collective noun, indicating the total as a singularity. If we could say “Egypt’s population uses the internet,” then the statement “One-quarter of Egypt’s population…” would also use the verb that agrees with the singular. To change the sentence slightly: “One-quarter of the people in Egypt use the internet.” In this sentence, use must agree with people, instead of population.

Is this subject singular or plural?

Here’s another verb agreement conundrum:

I was trying to explain that free breadsticks and salad does/do not mean you….

What is the subject for does/do…does sounds right but isn’t the subject plural.

Free activities is/are a great way to attract new customers

In both of these sentences, we have a compound subject joined by and. The rule for such subjects is that they are plural and the verb must agree with a plural subject. This is called notational agreement. An example sentence could be “Salad and breadsticks are nice, but they do not constitute a balanced meal.” But in the example question, they are treated as a single concept. “Free salad and breadsticks…” now comes the tricky part. The correct verb depends on the predicate, not the subject (can anyone find me a citation to back me up?). I think it is another example of the Blue Book exception to rule 4, where what appears to be a plural subject is actually a compound noun. The evidence is that the adjective “free” applies to both nouns, so they are treated as a singular item.

  • Free salad and breadsticks does not mean this is a high-class restaurant.
  • Free salad and breadsticks do not make this meal a great deal.

In the first example sentence the two free items are taken together as a collective idea; therefore, the singular verb is appropriate.

In the second example sentence, the two items are normal nouns that are countable, so we use the plural verb.

The second sentence in the question is more clearly an exception to the rule. Here, free activities is considered a single concept, and thus should be followed by a single verb.

Notational vs. Grammatical Agreement

Most of the time we use grammatical agreement: plural subjects take plural verbs. But, as in the examples above, sometimes a plural subject is actual a singular concept. Notational agreement is when we consider a plural subject as a singular and follow it by a singular form of a verb.

Gerund or infinitive following a verb

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Gerund or Infinitive Following a Verb?

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A reader asks if one should use a gerund or infinitive following a verb:

In the following sentence, which is correct, reading or to read and why? A good study habit is to read/reading English books.

What about the following, to travel or traveling, and why: My goal is to travel/traveling around the world.

In the first sentence, “a good study habit” requires a noun for completion; therefore, the gerund is correct: reading.

In the second sentence “my goal” could be either a noun or a verb; therefore either one would be correct.

Gerund: a verb in the -ing form used as a noun

First, let’s recall the meaning of these grammatical terms. A verb is an action word. A noun is a thing. But sometimes the thing can be the name of an activity. For example, fishing, running, writing, seeing and reading are all the names of activities. These are gerunds.

Infinitive: the “to” form of a verb

In English, the “normal” form of a verb is written with “to” before it: to fish, to run, to write, to see, or to read.

Gerund or Infinitive Following a Verb

Whether a verb is followed by a gerund or infinitive can vary depending on the verb or the meaning.

  • I forgot returning the book (I returned the book, but forgot that I returned it)
  • I forgot to return the book (I didn’t return the book, because I forgot to return it.)

Some verbs can only take a gerund; others can only take an infinitive.

  • I came to see the error of my ways (infinitive: correct).
  • I came seeing the error of my ways (gerund: not correct).
  • I came to seeing stars (gerund is correct following the phrasal verb “came to” meaning regaining consciousness).
  • I prefer to play the piano on Tuesdays. / I prefer playing the piano on Tuesdays. (both correct)
  • I see playing the flute as a good career option. (gerund: correct)
  • I see to play the flute… (infinitive: not correct).

To be or not to be

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Curious?A reader asked me to explain the verb be:

1.To be truly brilliant, an essay needs to utilise the right language.
2. Do not worry be happy.
What parts of speech ‘ to be ‘ belongs to and how to use it? I would be grateful if you could elaborate on the uses of be.

Although a thorough explanation would probably take a whole book, I gave him this brief explanation.

There is a lot to be said about the verb “be”.

First, as a verb in its own right, it usually is considered as a connecting verb (also known as a “state of being” verb). This is the usage in your first example. In the formation you use, it’s a little hard to see the connection between the subject (essay) and its adjective (brilliant). A similar but much simpler usage could be: “The essay is brilliant.” The verb “is” (present tense of the infinitive “to be”) connects the subject and the adjective which describes it. In your sentence the opening phrase uses the verb in its infinitive form.

In the second sentence, the verb is in the imperative form. The imperative is a command given to a person. Since it’s always in the second person (spoken directly to the receiver of the command) it is the only form in English that dispenses with the use of the pronoun. Here’s a more awkward form in which I’ll supply the pronoun: You must not worry yourself, you must be happy. While happiness is not generally something one can command in another, a much more common command using the verb “be” is “Be quiet!”

The verb “to be” is conjugated in the present tense as:

  • I am
  • You are
  • He/She/It is
  • We are
  • You are 
  • They are.

However, in the (not frequently used in English) subjunctive, the verb conjugation is as follows (I’m adding “if” because the subjunctive is used to indicate a state of wishfulness):

  • If I were
  • If you were
  • If he/she/it were
  • If we were
  • If you were
  • If they were

Notice that in the subjunctive there is only a slight difference from the past tense, which occurs in the first and third persons singular:

  • I was
  • You were
  • He/she/it was
  • We were
  • You were
  • They were

In some cases in the subjunctive, we actually use “be”:

  • Be it resolved…
  • Be that as it may…
  • Far be it from me…

These are all set expressions that have not evolved along with the language. They are difficult to explain to English language learners since they appear to violate normal rules of usage.

Further, the verb “to be” is frequently used as an auxiliary verb (or a modal verb) to create a verb tense.

It is used with the present progressive.

  • I am writing a blog post.
  • I was going to the store when the rain started.
  • He will be flying to Los Angeles tomorrow.
  • I have been editing for 30 years.

It is used to express expectation.

  • He should be finished working by now.
  • The goose will be cooked at 5 p.m.
  • The spy will have been caught by the time we cross the border.

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