grammar

When Less Is Fewer

less

In anticipation of the Red Sox-Rays playoff series, the following sentence appeared in articles on multiple online sports pages: “The Rays are an amazing 82-18 when they allow four runs or less.”

It should be “four runs or fewer.”

Less is used with mass nouns – things we can’t count individually – while fewer is correct when the items can be counted:

Less offense, fewer runs;

Less rain, fewer umbrellas;

Less ink, fewer words.

You know the “10 Items or Less” line at Stop & Shop? It should be “10 Items or Fewer” because you can count the fifteen items in my basket. Back in 2008, a British grocery chain, in a display of extraordinary linguistic sensitivity, sidestepped the issue by changing its signs to read “Up to 10 Items.” Some questioned if that meant “ten items and no more” or “nine items or fewer.” It’s enough to make you shoplift.

This is English, so there are exceptions. Time, money, and distance words turn the rule on its head: “We’ll arrive in less than five hours,” “I have less than $10 in my pocket,” and “I was driving less than 120 miles an hour, officer – what’s the problem?”

The Rays are an amazing 82-18 when they allow four runs or fewer. Let’s hope the Sox score five or more today – up to 10, even.

Wayward Words: Perspective vs. Prospective

Saw this familiar mistake in an article written by an excellent journalist friend of mine: the committee met with the perspective vendor at the beginning of the month. She meant prospective, of course – even pros get tripped up! Perspective refers to a view or a vista, or to a person’s outlook on something: His perspective on Joyce changed once he lived in Dublin. Prospective means anticipated or concerned with the future: She shared her thoughts on writing with prospective clients through her blog. So why the confusion with two words? Probably because they sound alike – they are almost homonyms – and perspective is the more common word.

Any other wayward words that you can share?

More Wayward Words: Object vs. Abject

Heard a popular sports talk show personality call something an object failure the other morning. Can’t chalk this up to the sports-obsessed meathead factor: this guy is smart and articulate. He just confused two words that sound alike. Of course, he meant to say an abject failure, with abject meaning absolute and humiliating. Object isn’t even an adjective. I’m adding this to my list of Wayward Words and invite you to share any that you may have!

In Praise of the Oxford Comma

Thanks to my son, Peter, Vampire Weekend’s song “Oxford Comma” now resides in my iTunes library. I love the song, especially its insistent chorus “Who gives a @#&! about an Oxford comma?” I do, of course.

The Oxford or serial comma precedes a conjunction (“and” or “or”) before the final item in a series of three or more. For example: red, white, and blue or Yeats, Shaw, and Beckett. Some people omit the second comma; others, including me, retain it. (And some people, as Vampire Weekend points out, don’t give a @#&!.)

Why do I? Two reasons:

1. Clarity. The serial comma ensures that there is no ambiguity about what you are trying to say. Consider this sentence: Among my heroes are my two sons, James Joyce, and Larry Bird. Remove the Oxford comma and the meaning is no longer clear: Among my heroes are my two sons, James Joyce and Larry Bird. Looks like the writer and basketball legend are now part of my family!

2. Consistency. Since the serial comma is essential to avoiding confusion in some instances, I prefer to use it in all instances. In writing, consistent punctuation conveys command of the language and craft. Haphazard use of the serial comma will make your writing look sloppy.

Language, like us, is constantly evolving, so it is inevitable that conventions will change. However, I hold fast to the tradition of the Oxford comma – not because it’s old school, but because it contributes to clear communication.

Where do you stand on the Oxford comma debate?

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