Monday, April 18, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: F

My ongoing list of the grammar and usage choices and mistakes that writers make that get under my proverbial skin.

This week’s list is rated PG-13. It is, after all, all about F-words.

Farther vs. further

I’m willing to let a few slip-ups pass unmentioned in normal conversation; I’m not a grammar Nazi. But if you’re writing — be it a speech, a short story, or directions to the local meth lab — you really have little excuse for getting farther and further mixed up.

It has been said a million times before, and I’m sure it will be said a million times more; nonetheless, here it is: farther refers to actual, measurable distances, and further refers to figurative or metaphorical distances.

“If you want to delve further into organized crime in this suburb, there are two more meth labs half a mile farther up the road.”

Further can also be used to mean “more” or “additional.” I have nothing further to say about these two words.

Fewer vs. Less

There is a “rule” floating around that fewer is used for countable items (like kittens, kielbasas, and kidney stones) and less is used for uncountable, mass items (like time, treachery, and TARP money). Taking a side in the ongoing “fewer vs. less” express-lane battle is like picking sides in Star Wars v. Star Trek: utterly pointless.

You could side with grammar hard-liner “Weird Al” Yankovic and go around correcting supermarket signs, or you could take a larger, more historical and laid-back approach, like Motivated Grammar and the linguists at Language Log.

But no matter which side you take, you will find both grammatical allies and editorial enemies. If I learned anything from the 1983 movie WarGames — besides how gorgeous Ally Sheedy is — it’s that the only way to win a war is not to play in the first place. (Granted, grammar is a far cry from global thermonuclear war, but the passion that some people show over the “less vs. fewer” issue might fool you into thinking they’re equally important.) So, rather than throwing my hat into the ring, let me lean toward refereeing and offer some friendly advice. First, some advice about usage: Instead of thinking about things that can be counted (fewer) and things that can’t (less), think about using fewer with plural nouns and less with singular nouns. Thus, having fewer dollar bills leaves you with less money. If you have fewer seconds, you’ll have less time. Fewer acres means less acreage.

Regardless of whether you come at it from the singular/plural or countable/uncountable angle, there will be exceptions. Few people would argue (though a handful would) that carrying less than 5 grams of cocaine looks and sounds better than carrying fewer than 5 grams of cocaine. And it’s hard to argue that Tom Thumb is less than 12 inches tall instead of fewer than 12 inches tall (or worse, fewer than one foot tall).  

[NOTE: Five years later, the confusing construction of this last sentence has been brought to my attention. It really is bad. What I intended to say was that "less than 12 inches tall" sounds so much better than either "fewer than 12 inches tall" or "fewer than one foot tall."  This strikes me as a bit of a false argument now. The editorial choices isn't so much between less than and fewer than as it is between less than 12 inches tall and under 12 inches tall. In that argument, both forms are acceptable (at least to me), and the choice should be governed by one's editorial ear. ABH 9/7/16]

But that still leaves us with the old “15 items or less” express lane, which leads me to my second bit of advice.

Rule #1 when you’re dealing with other people’s grammar and usage foibles: Don’t be a dick. (Actually, it’s rule #1 for almost any interpersonal relationships. Consider this rule the Strunk-and-Whited, all-needless-words-omitted version of the Golden Rule.) There are good and bad arguments for both sides of this issue, and winning such an argument earns you absolutely nothing. Intent will not be lost. English will not collapse. And with so many errors in the produce section, your editorial efforts can be better spent elsewhere.

And finally, a suggestion to supermarket marketers (would they be supermarketers?): If you want to create some viral online buzz about your business, try changing those express-lane signs to read “A dozen or so items.” Doing so is bound to draw the attention of Weird Als and Language Loggers alike.

Flammable vs. inflammable

What bugs me about this particular pair is that THEY BOTH MEAN THE SAME THING. Inflammable comes to us from the word inflame. Although the in- prefix usually indicates the opposite of what follows — as in incapable, ineligible, and infallible — it can also mean “toward,” “within,” or “on.” Infiltrate, increase, and incumbent use the prefix in the same way. Regardless, inflammable was confusing because people thought it meant the opposite of what it does, which in this case could lead to some very dangerous situations. So people used flammable instead. The important thing to remember is not to light up a cigarette next to a big tank with INFLAMMABLE printed on it. Things that can’t catch fire were given the word nonflammable. If anyone reading this post ever sees a sign that uses the word noninflammable, please take a quick picture of it and let me know in the comments here. That’ll be a great discussion starter, and maybe a decent T-shirt.

Forego vs. Forgo

Forego means "to go before." We don't see this word very often outside of the phrase "a foregone conclusion." Forgo means to go without. Foregone appetizers are the shrimp cocktail you just ate. Forgone appetizers means you didn't get any yummy shrimp cocktail.Try not to mix these two up anymore.

F#¢%ing self-censorship

Unless you’re doing it in a funny or sarcastic way, don’t replace letters in curse words with random symbols. If you feel strongly enough that a swear word is needed, use the damned swear word. If you don’t feel strongly enough about the statement to use a swear word, don’t hint at the possibility that you might be considering using a curse word by altering letters; just use a different word. Look: margarine isn’t butter, and sh*tfaced isn’t shitfaced, so don’t expect us to believe it is. And as a general rule, if you find yourself typing “I’m a f#¢%ing bada$$,” you are not, in fact, a fucking badass.