Simple, clear help for your writing problems

Apparently, most grocery and discount store managers have writing problems. Their misuse of the word less has been decried by patrons for decades. I hope you know I’m talking about those signs at checkout counters that read, 12 items or less.

Store managers don’t seem to care that they’re contributing to the world’s writing problems. You see, people shaping society today grew up reading those signs, and many don’t know the difference between the words less and fewer. People who do know the difference may be put off when they see the wrong word at work in your prose. For example, when Turner Network Television (TNT) started running adds with the tag line, “Get more movie, less commercials on TNT,” I was aghast! These guys have hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of employees, and they couldn’t come up with a grammatically sound tag line.

You’ll be more successful as a creator of internet content if you learn the difference between less and fewer. (And your writing will be better than that of Turner Network Television.)

Decrease your Writing Problems by One

Here’s what every writer needs to learn:

If you have discrete items, you can have more of them and you can have fewer of them.

If you are describing something that you can divide into portions of any size—and any amount of that thing is still that thing, then you can have more of the thing or less of it.

Here’s how it works: A candy bar is a discrete item. If you have ten candy bars and you eat some, you end up with fewer candy bars. In contrast, candy is not a discrete item. If you have a whole lot of candy and if you eat some, you’ll have less candy.

Get it Right, Always

If you’re about to use the word less in a sentence, do this:

Identify what less is referring to and ask the question “How much (item) do I have?”

So, if you’re about to write, “Belinda was concerned about having less apples than she needed to make the pie,” stop. You’re talking about apples, so say the sentence “How much apples do I have?”

Does the test sentence make sense? No! You can safely conclude that less is the wrong word; use fewer.

If you’re about to write, “Belinda was concerned about having less flour than she needed to make the pie,” you’ll be pleased when you construct the test sentence: “How much flour do I have?” The test sentence makes perfect sense, so less is the correct word.

Reinforce the Lesson

Use the word fewer when you’re talking about discrete items. Use the word less when you’re talking about indiscrete stuff. Here are some examples to help ingrain the difference:

Fewer apples, less applesauce

Fewer ice cubes, less ice

Fewer grains of sand, less sand

Fewer cans and bottles, less junk

Fewer boxes, packages, and cartons; fewer groceries; less food

To answer the question proposed in the title of this article: You want fewer writing problems, fewer mistakes, less difficulty.

 

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