Much vs. Many

To follow up on my last post regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less,” let’s briefly discuss when to use “much” and when to use “many.” Although the latter two seem to be confused far less frequently than the former two (largely because we seem to have an inherent sense of which one simply “sounds right”), people still sometimes mix them up.

Use “much” with singular nouns and “many” with plural nouns. For example, you didn’t eat much cereal, but you did eat many muffins. “Cereal” is a singular, mass noun, whereas “muffins” is a plural noun. There is one box or one bowl of cereal, but there are several muffins.

You would ask, “How much chicken did he eat?”, but “How many eggs did he eat?” (This would be different, of course, if you were dealing with an extremely hungry person, in which case, you might actually need to ask, “How many chickens did he eat?”)

You can talk about how much milk you drank, but how many cookies you dipped into it. You might describe how many sundaes you ate, but how much ice cream.

(Side note: Apparently, I am the aforementioned extremely hungry person. I started this post with breakfast examples, moved on to dinner, and followed with dessert–not deliberately! For more examples of how to correctly use “much” and “many,” click through the slideshow of (food!) photos below.)

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For further explanation of the relationship between “less”/”fewer” and “much”/”many,” click here.

 

 

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Reader’s Choice: Your Writing Questions, Answered

Perhaps you’ve always wondered what the difference between “Master’s” and “masters” is, in the context of one’s graduate degree.

Maybe you’ve never quite understood the difference between “affect” and “effect.”

Possibly, the semicolon is a source of infinite confusion for you.

Whatever your writing-related quandary may be, comment below or send an e-mail to mindthedogwritingblog@gmail.com to get it all cleared up in an upcoming post!

I look forward to hearing from you!

 

Than vs. Then

One of the reasons English is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn is its many homophones, one of the most infamous pairs being “than” and “then.” What follows is an extremely simplified explanation of their proper use.

“Than” with an “a” expresses comparisons. One way to remember this might be to associate the “a” in “than” with the “a” in “comparison.” An example of the proper use of “than” would be:

Ian is taller than Sally is.

The above sentence compares Ian’s height to Sally’s.

“Then” with an “e” relates to time. One way to remember this might be to associate the “e” in “then” with the “e” in “time.” An example of the proper use of “then” would be:

Ian was the taller of the two children, but then Sally grew.

The above sentence helps express when in time Ian was no longer taller than Sally–after she grew.

A sentence that uses both “than” and “then” properly would be:

Ian was taller than Sally, but then Sally grew.

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While I admit to loving the message in this Instagram post I came across a few weeks ago, I also admit I had a difficult time seeing beyond the “then” that should have been a “than.”

Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.

Alot vs. A Lot

One of the most common errors I see in my students’ writing is the combining of “a lot” into one word (that doesn’t actually exist): “alot.”

The main difference between “alot” and “a lot” is that one is a word, and one is not.

Many of us are so accustomed to seeing “alot” that we ascribe to the misconception that it’s a word, but–surprise!–it’s not. The proper way to employ “alot” is actually to separate it into two words, a noun and its article: “a lot.” One helpful way to remember this is to think of a plot (or a lot) of land. If you own one lot of land, you own a lot of land, but not onelot of land, or alot of land. Just as you would not write “onelot,” you would not write “alot.” The proper structure is, instead “one lot” and “a lot.” Another way to think of it is this: You wouldn’t write “alittle,” so you also wouldn’t write “alot.”

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I don’t love my dogs alot–but only because “alot” isn’t a word. I do, however, love them a lot!

 

Less vs. Fewer

Basically, “less” works with singular nouns and “fewer” works with plural nouns. For example, you might drink less milk than your friend, but you ate fewer cookies.

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You eat LESS salad, but FEWER vegetables.

You drink less water, but fewer glasses of water. This is because “water” is singular, whereas “glasses” is plural.

You eat less soup, but fewer bowls of soup.

You purchase less perfume, but fewer bottles of perfume.

You packed less clothing, but fewer clothes.

If you understand when to use “much” as opposed to when to use “many,” then another way to think about it is this: If you would use “many,” use “fewer.”  Think: I didn’t eat as many cookies as he did = I ate fewer cookies than he did.

If you would use “much,” use “less.” Think: I didn’t drink as much milk as he did = I drank less milk than he did.

The Importance of Proofreading

In case you’ve ever underestimated the importance of proofreading, don’t.

I recently found myself in the center seat on a full flight that couldn’t take off because of a typo.

It went something like this:

Pilot’s fuzzy voice announces over the cockpit speakers, “Ladies and gentleman, we have a full flight today. There are no empty seats, and it appears we will need to delay our takeoff just a bit because we are running over the weight limit.”

General rumble of dismayed passengers worried about missing connections (I include myself in the group of worriers) rises and falls in the cabin.

We wait.

And we wait some more.

About twenty-five minutes pass.

Pilot’s voice over the cockpit speakers crackles, “Ladies and gentleman, we are investigating what appears to be a typo. We recently got new handbooks, and we believe this latest version contains a typo. We are looking into it to make sure we are following procedure before takeoff.”

Exclamations of amusement and disbelief rise and fall in the cabin.

We wait.

And we wait some more.

Ten or fifteen minutes pass.

Pilot’s voice over the cockpit speakers relates the welcomed news, “Ladies and gentleman, it appears the issue was indeed only a typo. We will be taking off shortly. Thank you for your patience.”

Sighs of relief rise and fall in the cabin.

But I am still a little concerned.

You see, my 50-minute layover was a tight one before the typo-induced delay, and by the time the typo was identified and the confusion cleared up, our flight was taking off an hour later than scheduled.

I’ll spare you the details of the three-hour flight, which was uneventful, and skip to what was left of the layover:

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Every day on my way to and from work, I see this sign. Today, I glanced up and noticed a glaring mistake. If you see it, comment here or find me on Instagram to prove your proofreading prowess!

We are running through the airport with carry-ons clunking against our thighs and backs. We are panting on the tram. We are racing up to our gate as the woman manning it says, “You’re lucky you got here. They’re closing the door now,” and picks up a phone to tell the operator on the other end of the bridge that we are here and not to close the door yet. We are jostling our way down the aisle of already-settled passengers, eyeballing us as if we are the reason they have not yet taken flight.

We make our flight, but our checked bags aren’t as fortunate.

And our car keys are tucked safely away in them.

We land in Richmond, where the car we cannot unlock, let alone start and drive home, is waiting in the south parking garage. We call my mother-in-law to make the 25-minute drive from our home, where she has been taking care of our dogs, to the airport–with our extra set of car keys in her purse. We drive two separate cars home, and have an excellent excuse to relax for the evening: We cannot unpack luggage that did not arrive, nor can we begin to wash and dry and fold the clothes packed in said luggage.

We wake up the next morning to find our bags kindly delivered, waiting in the shade on our back deck–and the typo-induced ordeal has finally come to close. At least for us. I don’t know what became of the passengers whose connecting flights had already taken off when we finally landed at our connecting airport.

The moral of the story? The next time you consider sending an e-mail, publishing a blog post (goodness help my hypocritical soul if you’ve found a typo in this one!), or turning in a paper before you’ve proofread it (multiple times), consider the chaos one little mistake could cause on the other end (not to mention your own, personal humiliation).

 

 

 

Could Care Less vs. Couldn’t Care Less

I don’t consider myself a particularly irritable person, but I do have a few pet peeves. I can’t stand when the covers on my bed get rumpled and disheveled, rendering me tangled and immobilized. It drives me bonkers when those high-tech toilets with the automatic-flush feature flush at the most inconvenient and inappropriate times (which they always do). And I find it extremely inconsiderate when the driver in front of me slows down and turns without ever having used his blinker. But perhaps one of my greatest pet peeves is the widespread mispronunciation of the phrase “couldn’t care less.”

The phrase is meant to express an utter indifference.

“I hate to disappoint, but I am not going to make it to dinner tonight, my dear,” he said apologetically.

“Quite frankly, Daniel, I couldn’t care less,” she sniffed.

Providing the “she” in this example really does not at all care whether or not she sees Daniel at dinner tonight, this is the proper use of “couldn’t care less.” She cares so incredibly little about his attendance to the meal, that she actually could not care any less.

The common mistake people often make is to proclaim they “could care less,” when really, what they mean to express is that they don’t care at all.

“I hate to disappoint, but I am not going to make it to dinner tonight, my dear,” he said apologetically.

“Quite frankly, Daniel, I could care less,” she sniffed.

She could care less? She could? Quite literally then, she does care–at least a little–because she could care at least a little bit less.

Regarding some of my own pet peeves, then:

The blankets on the bed are in a disarray–twisted and tangled and balled up.

Oh, I could care less. I could care a lot less. In fact, we are going to have to fix that before we can go to sleep.

I walk into the bathroom stall and am greeted by the whooshing and whirring of a flushing toilet. I haven’t even locked the door yet, for crying out loud.

Again, I could care less. A lot less. How many gallons of water did we just waste? And how many more times is that thing going to flush before I’m through?

There are many things, though, that I really couldn’t care less about. What’s for dinner tonight? I couldn’t care less, just so long as I get to eat dinner. Should we make a reservation for 6:15 or 6:30? Couldn’t care less. What’s fifteen minutes? You get the idea.

The next time someone tells you she could care less about something, the proper response might be, “Really? How much less?”