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! ūüėČ

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.

My Ego and Constructive Criticism

Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.

My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).

In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.

They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.

They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.

In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.

And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.

It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way¬†not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing¬† or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.

A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way¬†not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.

At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.

But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.

An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.

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.

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.

image
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.

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.