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    When Less Is Not More

    Wednesday, November 12, 2014
    Due Mani Due Generazioni - Two Hands Two Generations - by Dino Olivieri 

    Maybe your pet grammar peeve (like mine) is a misplaced apostrophe, or maybe seeing a blatant error in agreement sends you up the wall. One of the biggest complaints of many is mixing up words that describe amounts: less and fewer, or more than and over.

    The difference lies in what the words describe. There is a clear delineation between the words fewer and less. Fewer describes things that can be counted (“count nouns”) while less applies to things that cannot be divided up (“mass nouns”).

                We counted fewer than a hundred people in the audience.

                The size of the audience was less than we had anticipated.

    But the decision between more than or over is not as clear-cut. It used to be the rule that more than was used for count nouns, while over was for noncount nouns. However editors were divided on that rule and tended to disregard it whenever they wished.

    Now, an announcement by the Associated Press, that bastion of journalistic style, has rocked the world of words by declaring that it is now acceptable AP style to use more than and over interchangeably.

                There were more than three dozen applicants for the job.

                There were over three dozen applicants for the job.

    Reaction to the announcement was strong, both positive and negative. One wag (RT@TheSlot) Tweeted “More than my dead body!” Meanwhile, others blithely noted that the argument was moot, as there had never been any hard-and-fast rule about interchanging these words.

    For your own use, either common sense or your editor’s choice should rule. Stylistcally, however, it sounds odd to my ear to say:

                That building will require more than a million dollars in repairs.

    I’d argue it sounds better to say:

                That building will require over a million dollars in repairs.

    English is a living language, which means there will be changes in usage over time, and this is just one of them. Also, bear in mind that language “rules” and language “style” are not coequal. Change in style usually comes about to enhance communication, so know the rules, but, as indicated by RT@TheSlot, use common sense in your style. 

    —Joyce Lee


    A Quagmire of Idioms

    Thursday, May 30, 2013

    Business has gone global, so your writing may as likely be read by someone in Tokyo or Berlin as in New York or Chicago. Keep that in mind when you write and edit documents, and strive for the clearest, most direct language possible. One particular pitfall to avoid is the use of idioms.

    Idioms are figurative language, colorful and descriptive but easily confusing if taken literally. The trouble is that they are so common we don’t even think about using “ballpark figure” or “making a cold call” until we receive a confused response from a client or customer in another country.

    Imagine you are communicating with a partner for whom English is a second language. You send the following idiom-packed email. Think about the literal translation.

    We asked our bean counter to crunch the numbers, and we believe that if we keep our noses to the grindstone, we can get the ball rolling on production within a month. Then, with the right backing, we should be able to float a loan, and with social media’s word-of-mouth to plug the product, we’re confident it will take off and sell like hotcakes. Our bottom line should be in the black within six months. We know you’ve been through the wringer with this project, but if you stick it out you’ll rake in a substantial bang for your buck. So please don’t throw cold water on the deal by pulling out before we can break even.

    Even between colleagues whose first language is English, idioms like those above are too casual for formal business correspondence. The following rewrite conveys the same ideas with more clarity.

    We asked our accountant to go over the financial figures, and we believe that with some hard work we can be ready to begin production within a month. Then, with help from investors, we should be able to obtain a loan and begin using social media to advertise. This will provide a sales boost resulting in a solid profit within six months. We realize this project has been difficult, but your participation is critical to our success, and if you stay with us you should see a good return on your investment.

    Of course some idioms have become such a part of language that it’s difficult to entirely avoid them, and others are pretty clear in themselves. The best rule is to use precise language and keep your possible readers in mind. Do that, and your message will hit a home run.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by Phillie Casablanca

    Augment and Supplement, Spider-Man Style

    Friday, July 27, 2012

    In the first three Spider-Man movies (2002, 2004, and 2007), Peter Parker's super powers were due entirely to a radioactive spider's bite. In the most recent film, our hero's enhancements are more in keeping with his comic-book origins. This makes them perfect for comparing the words augment and supplement.

    Augment
    In the comic series, Peter Parker's natural strength, speed, and agility are augmented by the radioactive spider's bite. In other words, they are boosted. They already existed, but have been made better.

    Supplement
    The comic-book Peter Parker was a boy genius before becoming a super hero. After the bite, he used his chemistry and engineering knowledge to create wrist-mounted web shooters. He even developed different web formulas for different purposes. These web shooters supplemented his spider abilities. In other words, the devices added something new to his crime-fighting repertoire.

    But what about his "spider sense"?
    It's debatable whether the radioactive spider's bite augmented Parker's human senses or supplemented them with an entirely new ability. I tend to think of his "spider sense" as a supplement. What's your opinion?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by rayand

    Is Led a Word?

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    One common search-engine query that lands business writers on the UpWrite Press site is the question, "Is led a word?" The short answer is "Yes." Led (short e sound) is the correct past tense of the verb lead (long e sound). Consider these examples.

    • Today I will lead my robot army to the zoo.
    • Yesterday I led them to the amusement park.
    • My robots are made of lead.

    Any spelling confusion likely rises from that final usage. Lead with a short e sound is a soft, dense metal that is great for shielding from radiation. It is, however, poisonous. In English, the same word is used for the graphite in pencils.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Ryusuke Seto

    One Word, Many Meanings: interest

    Friday, June 01, 2012

    The word interest has several different uses, both as a noun and as a verb:

    As a noun…
    interest has two clearly different meanings.

    • It can refer to curiosity about something, or to the thing that draws such attention:
      The boy showed a keen interest in learning about stocks.
      Birding has always been a favorite interest of Missy's.
    • Interest can also refer to a monetary gain on an investment or to the percentage charged on a loan:
      The interest we are paying on our new mortgage is nice and low.
      We put the interest we had earned on one of our accounts toward our down payment.

    As a verb…
    interest means "to attract and hold attention":

    • Does this class interest you?
    • Through careful promotion, we will interest employees in our self-help programs.

    In idioms…
    interest may be used in the following ways.

    • In the interest of suggests an advancement or improvement:
      In the interest of saving time, let's take a vote now.
    • Having a vested interest in something means that a person faces financial gain or political privilege through some activity.
      Considering that our CEO has a vested interest in the outcome, he will recuse himself from voting.

    Conclusion
    The more you absorb the richness of the English language, the better you will be able to hold your own reader's interest and achieve your writing goals.

    Photo by "the bridge"