Thursday, December 6, 2012

Numbers and amounts

As promised--and I hope you weren't holding your breath--I thought I'd continue from my last post about countable and uncountable nouns.

Now that you know the difference between these two, another difference that you should know about, other than  when to use "fewer" and "less", is the difference between "number" and "amount".  The use of these words is when you're referring to how much of something there is.

With countable nouns, you use "number" and with uncountable nouns, "amount".

Example with countable nouns: There was a large number of birds chirping out my window this morning.
Example with uncountable nouns: There was a small amount of sugar left over after all our Christmas baking.

So it would be incorrect to say "There was a large amount of birds" because "birds" is a countable noun.  I hear people use "amount" a lot when it should be "number".  Usually, people don't think of it the other way around, though.  I've never heard someone say, "There was a small number of sugar".  I think it sounds so funny that people just know not to use that!

Now that I think about it, there's a difference between the use of "much" and "many" with countable and uncountable nouns.  I guess that's for yet another entry!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A serious grammar discussion today!

Folks, this is about countable and uncountable nouns.  I'm getting really tired of hearing and seeing inappropriate uses of the word "less" when it should be fewer.   The one that bothered me most recently was a television commercial for a L'OrĂ©al product that's supposed to help you get rid of dark spots on your facial skin.  It promises that you'll see "less dark spots over time."  You know, if I'm going to pay a lot of money for expensive French remedies for my skin ailments, you would think they could use of my purchase price to sponsor ad writers that know the difference between countable and uncountable nouns!  Here it is with a more formal explanation.

Countable nouns: any noun that you count indvidually
  Example: potato (one potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, etc.)

Uncountable nouns: any noun cannot be counted
   Example: justice (here, you cannot say one justice, two justices, etc.)

Now, when you use nouns in comparison with each other, you have to decide whether to use "fewer" or "less". When you are using countable nouns, you need to use "fewer" and when using uncountable nouns, you need to use "less".

For example, which is correct?

There were less goblins under my bed last night.
There were fewer goblins under my bed last night.

Since a goblin is a countable noun, the second sentence is the correct one.

Here's another example, and guess which one is correct:

I have seen less sadness in her since she started playing soccer.
I have seen fewer sadness in her since she started playing soccer.

I think this one is more obvious because it sounds really funny to say "fewer sadness."  Sadness is an uncountable noun, so "less" should be used in this sentence.

Knowing the difference between these is useful for using the words "amount" and "number", but I think I'll leave that for another day.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

More on I's and E's

The letter I and the letter E often mess us up.  There's our age-old rule, I before E except after C, though there are exceptions to that rule (see this blog for more on exceptions).  However, it's also not clear when to use them in certain words, like is is artifact or artefact?  Compliment or complement?

It turns out, there are two different things going on in those examples.  Artifact is simply the American spelling of the British artefact, but compliment and complement mean two different things.  Compliment is when you acknowledge or give praise to someone or something.  For example, if you tell someone that you like his or her outfit, you are giving that person a compliment.  Complement is when you complete one thing with another or improve upon one thing with another.  You can complement a meal with a good wine, for example.  Or sometimes you hear a couple described as complementing each other because perhaps they have opposite traits that balance each other out.

For other words that are often easily confused, check this web site for a list of different words and expressions!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How many spaces do I use after punctuation?

When I do proofreading, I notice a lot of confusion about whether to put two spaces after a period (full stop, if you're a British English speaker) or other punctuation used to end a sentence or just one space.  This used to matter more than it does now.  The difference is actually one of British vs. American style.  Historically, British English required two spaces after a period, question mark, exclamation mark, or colon, and one space after all other punctuation, but American English preferred two spaces after all of those but one after other punctuation.  More recently, the American preference is to use only one space after all punctuation.  I know that some British style writing is trending toward simplification such that only one space will be used after all punctuation (and they're even paring down on using commas, just as a side note!).  However, unless you're writing a manuscript where there are strict publishing guidelines, you can always use your personal preference, within reason.  I personally still use two spaces after all punctuation that ends sentences (? ! and .) and one after all others ( : ; and ,).  I think that's how I was taught when learning to type on a computer, so that's what I went with.

And no, I'm not swearing! 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Do I spell it offence or offense?

There are a variety of words that seem to be spelled really similarly--with maybe just one letter different, and it often causes confusion when you're trying to figure out which is the correct spelling.  When I was teaching English in Mexico, students often asked me if they were spelling words like "colour" incorrectly because they would spell it "color."  It was a great teachable moment to point out the difference between British and American spellings.  The good news is that "offense" and and "offence" have the same explanation.  Offense is the preferred American spelling, and offence seems to be preferred everywhere else.

However, you may be wondering if words like practise and practice or advise and advice are also like the offense/offence situation.  In this case, they are not.  Practise and advise are verbs, and practice and advice are nouns, so you'll have to make sure you use them appropriately if you're wondering which spelling to use.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Does it annoy you when you hear someone say "different than"?

I was taught that "different from" is the correct usage when comparing two things, so I did indeed feel annoyed when I would hear people say "different than".  But today, I'm stealing information from one of my favourite web sites, The Oxford Dictionary online.  Here's what they have to say about the matter:

Different from, than, or to?

Is there any difference between the expressions different from, different than, and different to? Is one of the three ‘more correct’ than the others?
In practice, different from is by far the most common of the three, in both British and American English:
We want to demonstrate that this government is different from previous governments. (British English)
This part is totally different from anything else that he's done. (American English)
Different than is mainly used in American English:
Teenagers certainly want to look different than their parents.
Different to is much more common in British English than American English:
In this respect the Royal Academy is no different to any other major museum.
Some people criticize different than as incorrect but there’s no real justification for this view. There’s little difference in sense between the three expressions, and all of them are used by respected writers.

My take on it is that because I love and prefer the Oxford English Dictionary, even if it doesn't contain Canadian spellings, I'll go with their point of view on this grammatical question.  I guess the cat is out of the bag regarding my biases, but that's the beauty of Canadian English because both British and American spellings and usage are considered to be correct, so we have the freedom to choose :o)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Baby Animals

I was on such a great roll for a while with my blog posts, but I am back to being sporadic.  I'm sure if you had been on the edge of your seat for the last post in my series on redundancies, you would have long fallen off.  I'm fairly certain this did not happen to anyone, not because I believe that gravity went haywire, but because I don't think anyone was that excited about the end of the redundancy series.  Maybe I underestimate myself.

Anyway, my last pet peeve when it comes to redundancies is when people say, "There were baby bunnies at the pet store", or "My cat just bad baby kittens."  This bugs me to no end because the words bunny and kitten are the words to call the babies of rabbits and cats, respectively.  They never refer to adult varieties of these animals; you could never say "There were adult bunnies at the pet store", or "My cat just had adult kittens".  Statements like that are just semantically incorrect.  I also hear it a lot with baby chicks, rather than just chicks as the babies of chickens or other birds.  It's one thing if you don't know the name for the babies, so you might say "baby horse" or "baby rabbit", but a baby bunny just makes no sense to me.

I should admit that it's often little kids that use these types of phrases, but because they're kids, I don't expect them to know better.  What I do expect is their parents not to mind if I have the urgent need to correct them! ;o)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

As opposed to 7 a.m. at night?

This redundancy is one I'm mentioning only because it's a pet peeve of mine.  Sadly, I do catch myself saying it from time to time because I hear it so often, and then I grit my teeth as soon as I realise I've said it!  I hear this most often when people are relating a story and say, "This happened at 10 a.m. in the morning" or "I was there at 3 p.m. in the afternoon." When I hear that (depending on who the speaker is), I'll make the joke, "As opposed to 10 a.m. in the afternoon?" or "As opposed to 3 p.m. in the morning?" respectively.  It really catches people off guard, and I haven't seen one person not laugh about it (thankfully for me!).  It's one thing if you want to say, "I was there at 3 in the afternoon" or "I was there at 3 p.m.," but it's otherwise redundant to use the a.m. or p.m. with morning or afternoon, or even night, as the case may be.

Getting tired of redundancies yet?  I've only one more left to mention, so stay tuned for upcoming new topics!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Preposition woes

Before I get into my subject today, I ended up hearing another word that bugs me that relates to my post on in-law plural words.  That was the word "passerbys" as opposed to "passersby".  At least with the in-laws, it doesn't sound so bad, even if it's incorrect, because we do have the word "in-laws", but with "passerbys", that just sounds terrible.  We don't have any word "bys", so that one just sounds terrible to my ears! ;o)

Continuing with my mini-series on redundancies, today's topic has to do with duplicating prepositions.  Although it's much more acceptable these days to end sentences with prepositions (phrasal verbs notwithstanding), many people stick to what they were taught growing up, and that has just become habit.  What's funny to me, though, is that because we often learn language by mimicking phrases and words we heard adults say growing up, some people don't realise what it is they're actually saying.  Normally, you might hear someone say

This is not a person with whom I'd like to contend

As you can see, the with is properly placed in this sentence if trying to avoid ending the sentence with that preposition.  However, sometimes I'll hear people say something like

This is not a person with whom I'd like to contend with

I think we become used to saying particular phrases that we stop remember what part of speech they are and then end up with sentences like these.  These kinds of redundancies entertain me more than anything, but just in case this is something you do and want to fix, I thought I would point it out!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Of redundancies

I think I'll put a few smaller posts about redundancies, partly because it's not nice to have to read too much text but also because there are so many ways to be redundant that I think it will be more sensible to organise my posts this way.

One of the redundancies that's a bit of a pet peeve for me is when I hear people use the re- prefix and use the word again in the same.  For example, I'd like to re-write that exam again. The use of the prefix actually already entails the fact that you are writing something again.  You could say either, I'd like to re-write that exam, or I'd like to write that exam again.  They mean the same thing.  The only exception would be if you've already re-written the exam once, but then you re-write it yet another time, so there would be more than 1 re-write after the original writing of the exam.  Usually, that's not the context in which I hear people use the re- prefix, however.  Stay tuned for more on redundancies!

Monday, May 28, 2012

In-law troubles - especially when there are many in-laws!

If there's any reason that I should stop watching television, it's not because it's making me dumb or compromising the health of my eyes.  It's for the fact that I get really annoyed when I see grammar errors in show titles.  "Extreme Couponing" is a really offensive one because there is no such verb "to coupon". I know that the English language creates a lot of verbs out of nouns, apparently more so than most other languages, I've heard.  Still, I don't think I can ever accept "couponing" or any other form of "coupon" as a verb.

The one I noticed recently that also annoys me is called "Monster-in-laws".  It's a show about people's rude or frustrating in-laws.  The content of the show is probably inane, and I have no intention of watching an episode to find out, but the title itself if what I don't like because it's grammatically incorrect.  It reminded me that this is a fairly widespread grammatical error that people say a lot when referring to their in-laws.  When referring to specific in-laws, such as mother-in-law, the correct plural of it is actually mothers-in-law, not mother-in-laws.  I should say that I have 3 sisters-in-law, not that I have 3 sister-in-laws.  In this context, in-law serves more as an adjective, so it shouldn't be pluralised.  It's probably tricky because in English, our adjectives usually come before our nouns and not after, so we're usually not tempted to pluralise them.  The other confusing thing is that "in-laws" alone are pluralised this way because "in-law" is actually the noun and doesn't seem to function as the noun in the case of specific in-laws.  The only other example I could think of was "lady-in-waiting", those individuals that were kind of like a personal assistant to royal women in years past.  You would never hear the phrase "I have 2 lady-in-waitings", or at least I've never heard it.  People always seem to know that the plural of that would be "ladies-in-waiting", so I see it as being similar to the case with the in-laws.

You know, even if you don't like your in-laws, you can still show them the courtesy of referring to them in grammatically correct ways, if not for their sake, then at least for the sake of sticklers like me! ;o)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dilemma or predicament?

I was watching a makeover-style show on television this morning where the person being made over said, "Anna and Kristina fixed my fashion dilemma!" She was attending a black tie wedding and didn't have a think to wear. It got me thinking how I've observed a lot of people using this word incorrectly. When I was in school, one of our vocabulary lessons was to learn the difference between "predicament" and "dilemma". We were told that a dilemma is when you have a problem involving a choice between 2 alternatives, it's a dilemma. If there are more than 2, you would have a predicament.

I have always taken this at face value. I mean, our teachers should know, right? So I checked my favourite online dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary, and here is now Oxford defines it:

  • a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable:he wants to make money, but he also disapproves of it: Den’s dilemma in a nutshell
  • 1 a difficult situation or problem:the insoluble dilemma of adolescence2 Logic an argument forcing an opponent to choose either of two unfavourable alternatives.
Now, in the second definition, it's only in the context of philosophy that dilemma indicates only 2 alternatives, but in general everyday use, a dilemma can refer to 2 or more alternatives. Now I dislike being wrong, but I'm glad that something made me want to look up this word so that I could learn its definition.

Of course, being that the way I learned about dilemma was slightly faulty, I had to question my knowledge of the definition of predicament. Here's how Oxford defines it:


  • 1a difficult, unpleasant, or embarrassing situation:the club’s financial predicament2 (in Aristotelian logic) each of the ten ‘categories’, often listed as: substance or being, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, posture, having or possession, action, and passion.
So it seems that my understanding of the word predicament was definitely off as well, but at least I don't feel that I've been using it incorrectly all my life! I haven't been using dilemma incorrectly, either, only that there were more instances where I could have used it than I did.

No matter how much you know about a subject, there is always going to be something new to learn! I still think that the person in the show used the term incorrectly, however. I fail to see what her unpleasant alternatives were. She had a choice between dressing well for the party or not dressing well. Perhaps her implication was that she didn't know how to choose the right outfit for the party, so if left to her own devices, she would have had a dilemma because all her choices would have been wrong, and that's why she needed the assistance of experts. Maybe I just think too deeply about it!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

English around the world

I'm a little tired from travelling in Southeast Asia for a month, and although I should be taking advantage of my little vacation in the region before I go home, I'm resting in my room and contemplating a nap. I'm also contemplating the ubiquity of English and thinking about how it's used around the world. I've been in Indonesia for the last week, and it's really interesting to me to see how much English has infiltrated their language, Bahasa Indonesia. A colleague told me the other day how they're trying to get rid of all the Dutch words in their language. The Dutch colonised this area for about 400 years. I don't know enough Dutch to see all its influence, but there are a few I can pick up, such as the word for bus stop, halte. It surprises me that they're more concerned about the Dutch influence than the English. You can take a yellow bas sekolah to get to school, and maybe you wouldn't be allowed to eat an apel while you're on the bus, but you might find it in your lunch. Sometimes a teksi is more flexible about what you can eat if you're running late for work perhaps, and need to get there in a jiffy. There are many places where you can find seks, but instead you can always find many other places where they serve fresh fruit jus of various kinds, and you can make them colder with es if you need to. There are many more like this that I can't remember off the top of my head, but I do find it funny. Generally a language will not have a word for which the speakers of that language have no concept, which is why many languages will adopt words from a language if they have been colonised, and often from English whether or not they have been colonised, and then those words are given a spelling and/or pronunciation to make it fit with the local language. It's quite entertaining. That still doesn't explain the Dutch.

My cousin in India suggested to me that Indian style English may soon become the norm because there are so many speakers of that style. Isn't that a scary thought! We'll have to read the Samosapedia dictionary to start practising now! :o)