Fewer vs. Less

fewer-vs-less
Above, my friend and I show off our paintings after a recent paint night. If we had used fewer colors, we would have used less paint. Use “fewer” for countable items, and “less” for one, mass item.

It’s research paper season in my world right now, and as I read page after page of student work, one mistake keeps surfacing: confusion regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less.”

Most of the time, people probably aren’t even aware that they are getting it wrong. After all, saying something like, “I should have eaten less cookies” really doesn’t sound that bad (unless you know better, which you are about to). But it is wrong. What the regretful victim of the sweet tooth should have said was: “I should have eaten fewer cookies.” Now, if she had been talking about cake, she would have been correct in her use of “less.” “I should have eaten less cake” is correct.

So why is “I should have eaten less cake” correct where “I should have eaten less cookies” is incorrect? Well, whereas “cookies” are several, countable items, “cake” is one, mass item. If you eat less cake or less pie, you eat fewer slices of cake or pie. The cake and the pie are singular, mass items, but the slices are individual, countable pieces.

Basically, you use “fewer” when discussing a number of individual items that you can count–crackers, cookies, hours, vegetables. You use “less” when discussing one item that can be larger or smaller in size.

For example, when you have fewer minutes, you have less time. Time is one thing made up of a bunch of minutes.

Similarly, when you eat fewer pieces of cake, you eat less cake. The cake is one baked good made up of several pieces.

For one final example: If you eat fewer meals, you might eat less food. Food is not a countable item, but the number of meals you eat in a day is.

Hopefully, you now have fewer questions and less confusion about the English language! 😉

A part vs. Apart

For some reason, the confusion between “apart” and “a part” has been surfacing in my professional and personal life with increased frequency over the course of the last week or so. I noticed it in at least a third of the essay tests I finished grading just before winter break began, and it has appeared on my Facebook feed more often than I’d like to remember. Due to its recent, rampant presence, I thought the error merited some attention. Let’s get the difference between “a part” and “apart” all sorted out.

When “apart” appears as one word, it is an adverb that means “separate,” as in, “Take the toy apart” or “His feet were spread far apart from each other” or “He lives apart from his parents.”

When “a part” appears as two words, you have an article (“a”) and a noun (“part”), as in “one piece,” or one involved party.

The most common error I see is the use of the adverb “apart” where what is actually needed is the article “a” and the noun “part.” For example, one might write, “I am so glad to be apart of your special day,” when what one really means to say is, “I am so glad to be a part of your special day.”

If you think of it in this context, “He stood apart from the crowd” means something very different than “He stood, a part of the crowd.” In the former, he stands out. In the latter, he blends in.

Apart

A Part

Adverb Article paired with noun
Means: separate Means: one piece
He lives apart from his parents. He is a part of the high school band.

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!

 

Accept vs. Except

In the honors English class I teach right now, we are working on writing college essays in preparation for the students’ college application process next fall. As I stood at the front of the computer lab this afternoon, listening to the gentle tap of fingertips on keys, I overheard and subsequently entered into a conversation with two of my students. The first, a young man, was reading off a list of notable alumni from the college to which he plans to apply in the fall. Presuming he was thus engaged for lack of motivation to actually write his application essay, which consisted of a very broad prompt (basically: write a personal statement of 500 words), I suggested that instead of wasting precious writing time perusing a list, he should consider writing an essay about how he wanted to be added to the college’s notable alumni list–and all the things he planned to be notable for.

“So…for working at McDonald’s?” he quipped (he actually wants to be a nurse).

Matching his tone, I offered, “Well, everyone likes a burger.”

“Right,” he said. “Except me.”

At least, that’s what I heard him say. And so did his classmate beside him.

“What?!” she cried with incredulity, ripping her eyes from her computer screen. “You don’t like burgers?”

He looked at her for a moment, confused.

“Yes, I do,” he said.

“But you just said you don’t.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did. Mrs. Creasey said everyone likes a burger and you said, ‘Except me.'”

“No! I meant accept me–like, let me come to your college,” the young man explained.

The young woman and I laughed, and she added, “See, that’s why the English language is so difficult: you have ‘accept’ and you have ‘except,’ and they sound just the same.”

And in this particular context, they both made sense–but the use of one over the other completely changed the meaning of the statement. In most cases, we can easily discern what the speaker means based on the context, but this is an example of a circumstance when that was not the case–when seeing the word spelled out would have greatly assisted in ascertaining its meaning (if, that is, you know how to spell it regarding its intended use).

When spelled as “accept,” the verb means to allow or admit in, to welcome, or to gain. When spelled as “except,” it means to exclude, bar, or leave out. A memory trick might be to remember that “accept” with an “a” is a synonym for “allow” and “admit,” which also begin with “a.” “Except” with “ex” is synonymous with “exclude,” also spelled with “ex.”

A ccept Ex cept
A dmit Ex clude

These words can, of course, also functions as nouns. To change “except” into a noun, add the ending “-ion” for “exception.” To change “accept” into a noun, add the ending “-ance” for “acceptance.” My student, then, might not be the exception to my everyone-loves-a-burger rule, but he definitely wants to gain acceptance into college.

 

 

Everyday or Every Day?

One of the most common mistakes I see in my students’ (and many other people’s) writing, is confusion as to the use of “every day” and “everyday.”

Everyday
This sign exemplifies the common (or everyday…!) confusion surrounding the use of “every day” and “everyday.” The sign is meant to express how often people should pay for parking in this particular lot. They should pay each day, not eachday. The sign would be correct if its “everyday” were changed to “every day.”

As one word, “everyday” is an adjective, as in “He was your everyday Joe, just trying to get by,” or “He drove an everyday sedan, indistinguishable from the other beige cars in the lot.” It refers to something that is commonplace, normal, usual. “Everyday” is synonymous with words like “typical” or “average.”

As two words, “every” and “day,” the word “every” functions as a modifier for the word “day.” “Every day” as two words expresses the frequency with which something occurs, as in, “I eat breakfast every day.” In this case, “every day” is synonymous with “daily” or “each day.”

An example that uses both, albeit a bit redundant, would be: “I enjoy a simple, everyday cereal–Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes–for breakfast every day.”

As a rule of thumb, if you could correctly use “each day” or “daily” where you are thinking of employing “every day” or “everyday,” use “every day.” If you could correctly substitute “typical” or “common” where you plan to use “every day” or “everyday,” use “everyday.”

Every Day—expresses frequency

Everyday—adjective

Daily Typical
Each day Normal
Every single day Common

 

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:

FullSizeRender-4
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).