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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


    Write It Down, Write It Down

    Friday, October 17, 2014
    Lost in Thought

    A man was talking to his friend, bemoaning the fact that he’d get excellent ideas when falling asleep or sleeping, but always forgot them when he awoke. His friend offered this advice: “Put a pad of paper and a pencil on your nightstand. As you fall asleep, say to yourself over and over, ‘Write it down, write it down.’ Then when you dream an idea, you’ll wake up and write it down, and you’ll have it in the morning.”

    The man did as advised: he put a pad and pencil by his bed and repeated, “Write it down, write it down,” as he sank into sleep. Sure enough, when he dreamed a brilliant idea, he woke up and sleepily scratched his thoughts on the pad, then fell back asleep, content that his idea was safe. The next morning he woke up and eagerly read the pad.

    What he had written were the words, “Write it down, write it down.”

    Okay, it’s a joke. But the concept is solid. Writing your thoughts down is a great way to preserve them. It’s too easy to lose those valuable ideas that pop into our heads at odd times—standing in line at the grocery, on an elevator, waiting for the bus, mowing the lawn. If you keep a small notepad in your pocket, or a notes app on your smartphone, you can quickly jot down a reminder to revisit when you have time later. And yes, a voice recorder serves the same function, but for many people the physical act of writing helps to implant an idea in their mind.

    So when you get a thought—whether it’s a brilliantly original idea or simply a reminder to call a colleague—write it down, write it down. 

    —Joyce Lee

    Among and Between

    Friday, April 18, 2014

    Creative Commons photo by berr.e on Flickr

    English is called a living language because the words and rules are constantly changing to fit a changing world. The words among and between are good examples of this flux. The simple rule has been to “use between when referring to only two things, and among when referring to more than two.” But following this rule unswervingly results in awkward constructions.

    It is correct to use between when considering one-to-one relationships, no matter the number of individuals or things, and no matter if that number is unspecified (see third example here):

    The choice for vice president is between Raynar and Kimberlie.

    We must decide between New Orleans, Galveston, and Tampa for our vacation destination.

    In this global economy, cooperation between nations is paramount.

    On the other hand, it is correct to use among to portray meanings such as these—in the midst of, in a group, or to distribute:

    The guests felt at ease because they were among friends.

    Marcia is among the elite when it comes to her management skills.

    The will divided the property among Kris, Linette, and Vaughn.

    Here is an example sentence that uses both words correctly:

    Traveling on the roads that stretched between the small towns, the reporter wandered among the field hands and asked questions.

    It’s important to stay abreast of changes in the language. Be careful, though, to avoid trendy phrases that quickly become dated. Our blog and our mid-month eTips newsletter can help.

    —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

    Double Jeopardy

    Monday, April 15, 2013

    Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875)

    As you may know, in formal English it is improper to use two negative words together to emphasize a point—as in, “I didn’t never say that.” Logic argues that two negatives cancel each other to make a positive, in this case meaning, “At some point in time I said that.”

    There are occasions, however, when doubled negatives do suit a purpose, even in formal English. That is, when you intentionally want to negate a negative to create a positive. Here’s an example:

    She couldn’t not notice that he was barefoot beneath his business suit.

    This sentence implies that she tried to be polite and ignore his bare feet, but they were too obvious. Granted, this is a somewhat clumsy sentence, perhaps better written as “She couldn’t avoid noticing…” or “She could hardly help but notice…” 

    A perhaps more legitimate example comes in this sentence:

    The lecture on global financial trends turned out to be not uninteresting.

    This suggests that the writer expected the talk to be less than interesting and was surprised. Or the sentence could be intended as a modest statement of praise.

    Of course, neither the “barefoot” example above nor this “lecture” example belong in good business writing. Neither is concise or clear.

    But they do illustrate that writing correctly is more than just a matter of memorizing grammar rules. Communication is a dynamic, living thing. Just as human beings are dynamic, living creatures. That's something worth reflecting on.

    —Joyce Lee