Friday, April 29, 2011

Less than perfect

I like to come back to this blog every year or so. In fact, I got to work at 8.30 this morning so don't feel so bad wasting half an hour writing about one of my favourite things: grammar.

Today, our source material comes from twitter.

@PreciseEdit tweets:
Wrong: We have LESS than 3 gallons remaining. Right: We have FEWER than 3 gallons remaining.

It's hard to know where to start with this one. How about here: THAT IS SO UNBELIEVABLY WRONG!!

Actually, that may not be the best place to start. This blog has never been about right and wrong and I don't take a black and white approach to English.


Cos, y'know, this is wrong.

Isn't it?

There may be a grey area. Let's explore.

I've been an advocate of the word "fewer" for as long as I can remember. It's not a hard word to say, it has only five letters, yet people insist on mis-using the word "less" where "fewer" would be perfectly fine.

To go over the rule quickly, we use "less" when we're talking about a single mass of the same thing but "fewer" when we're talking about a number of individual things.

For example:
We bought a dozen cupcakes for the party. I just ate one, so now there are fewer cupcakes.
We bought a big cake for the party. I just ate a slice, so now there is less cake.
Now, what @PreciseEdit did is interesting. He used a liquid as his example. And here's where things get a bit vague.

Let's say you have three gallons of something. How is it contained? Is it in one big container, such as a petrol (or, for our trans-pacific cousins, gas) tank? Or, is it milk, in three individual, one-gallon bottles?

This is important, and to be fair to @PreciseEdit, it's hard to give complete context when you only have 140 characters to make your point.

But back to the containers.

Let's assume we're talking about milk in bottles (because I don't think they make cartons that big). And let's assume that you're referring to each bottle as a gallon.

So, if you came home from the supermarket with two bottles of white, cow-derived dairy liquid, you could conceivably say:
I have bought some milk. I only had enough money to buy two bottles, so we have fewer than three gallons.
Why anyone would feel the need to point that out, I don't know. But if you were referring to the presence or absence of a number of gallon-sized units of a particular liquid, there is a case where you could conceivably use the word "fewer" in referring to them.
"How many gallon-sized bottles of milk am I holding up?"
"No, fewer."
You get the idea.

Now, the problem with liquid is that you can't count it the way you do, say, cupcakes, pipe bombs, testicles, whatever.

When liquid is in a container, it doesn't care how much of itself there is. It's not obvious to us all that it's a particular number of somethings.

If you see a person with one arm, you immediately know the quantity of arms you're looking at and that there are fewer than the normal amount. But you can't do that with liquid. You can't tell just by looking at a liquid how many of it there are.

A mass of liquid, when you take a bit of it away, is still just a mass of liquid.

What we do as humans, because we need to know these things, is assign an arbitrary measure to this liquid. In this case, volume.

So let's say that we have an empty tank, we go to the petrol station (please suspend your disbelief; I don't know how we got the car here on an empty tank) and we put exactly 11.35623534 litres in the tank. We do this because we don't live in a backwards country that hasn't even caught on to the metric system yet. If we did though, we would have bought exactly three gallons of fuel.

Now, let's say we drive around the block and measure how much is in the tank. Will it be two gallons exactly?

Shit, no. It's going to be 2-point-nine-something gallons of fuel, or 11-point-one-something litres.
Now, we have less fuel than we did when we started.

Ask yourself. Do we have fewer than three gallons? Or less than three gallons.

It's less.

It's the same with money. While it might be tempting to say "I just bought a $3 coffee and paid for it with a hundred, so I now have fewer than $100", it's not really the best way to explain the concept because as soon as you break up a dollar into smaller units, you can't really quantify the number of dollars. They cease to become discrete units that can be counted. So if your coffee was $2.80 you didn't spend fewer than three dollars on it, you spent less than three.

And on that note, it's time for my coffee. I like it hot but please let's not get started on whether it should be over 60° or more than 60°. You work it out.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Being objective

Did you see what I did there? Yep, fell asleep for a few years.

Anything change while I was gone? Are people still getting simple stuff wrong? Not much, then.

I've been having a very long and drawn out discussion over the past few days with a fellow twitter user over that old chestnut debate over whether to use "my friends and me" or "my friends and I".

English teachers (who all have the best intentions, I'm sure, bless) drill it into us at a young age that, when we're talking about ourselves in the company of others, we should always use "My friends/wife/mum/bridge team/uncle Bob/therapist and I".

It seems only right, of course. When we're going through a door, it's polite to let other people through first.

But there are two issues at play here: etiquette and grammar; and I think some users of English are prioritising the former over the latter.

Yes folks, time for a basic lesson in pronouns.

For this lesson, let's use the following sentence as a model.

Barry gives flowers to his girlfriend.

In this sentence, Barry is the subject; flowers is the direct object; and his girlfriend is the indirect object.

Barry is the subject of the sentence because he's what the sentence is about. We conjugate the verb to agree in number and gender (which isn't a big deal in English so forget I mentioned it) to agree with the subject. So in this instance we say gives instead of give. (I orginally had this sentence in the past tense but had to change it to illustrate this point as the past participle agrees with all subjects, regardless of number. (Ignore this parenthetical remark if you don't know what a past participle is; I'm trying to eliminate confusion, not cause more.))

Flowers is the direct object because this is what the verb gets done to. The verb is 'to give'. What gets given? Flowers. Clear? Good.

His [Barry's] girlfriend is the indirect object because the verb doesn't happen directly to her but she is indirectly involved. The indirect object will always have a preposition before it. In this case, to, and a preposition (as we all know) is a word which is placed before a noun to denote a syntactic or grammatical relationship between that noun and its antecedent (the thing that comes before it).

I'm thinking around now that I should have given Barry a nicer name, like Heath or something. Sorry Barry. And sorry Barry's girlfriend too.

Pronouns come in two varieties: subjective and objective. Subjective pronouns are used to replace the subject of a sentence.

He gives flowers to his girlfriend.

Now, because our objects come in two forms, so do our object pronouns. Sure, they're the same set of words, but depending what role they play in a sentence, they can be either direct-object pronouns or indirect-object pronouns. They replace the direct object and indirect object respectively.

Barry gives them to her.

Them is the direct-object pronoun, replacing flowers; her is the indirect-object pronoun, replacing his girlfriend, who I have decided to name Scarlett.

Scarlett is lucky to get flowers. But I guess this is compensation for having a boyfriend named Barry.

Now, onto the case in point, where we have multiple people playing the part of either subject or object. Or, indeed, both.

If I'm set to go out with Barry and Scarlett for a few drinks, I might say:

My friends and I are going to the pub.

In this example my friends and I is the subject of the sentence. It could be replaced by the pronoun we and still agree with the verb. If I said 'Barry and I are going to the pub', I'd still have to use the verb are because if it were just Barry going to the pub, it would be Barry is and if it were just me, it would be I am.

That's the grammar of it. Etiquette and English teachers dictate that we put our friends first, which most of us do. The construction I and my friends are going to the pub is obviously not as common and sounds a little strange, however it is really no less gramatically correct. The pronoun I is a subjective pronoun. Other subjective pronouns are you, he, she, we, they.

But what happens when my friends and I are not the subject..

Heath bought a round of drinks for my friends and me.

Heath is now the subject of the sentence. He's also a great guy and I think Scarlett is a little jealous that he's the gregarious, drink-buying type. Barry's not impressed.

Now, Heath bought drinks for all of us, and now that we're all indirect objects, any of the following could be true (and gramatically correct):

Heath bought a drink for me

Heath bought drinks for them

Heath bought drinks for my friends

Heath bought a round of drinks for all of us

Heath must be loaded.

The point being is that we're now looking at object pronouns, namely me, you, him, her, us, them, it.

The litmus test as to which pronoun to use when multiple subjects exist, is to take out one or the other and see if the sentence still makes sense. If the sentence reads:

Heath and me are cool

If we take out Heath, it just reads Me are cool. Of course you would conjugate the verb properly and it would read me is cool, which, while true, is bad grammar.

Another bad example (the one most people get wrong):

The waitress just said hi to Heath and I

Again, if we take Heath out of the equation, it becomes The waitress just said hi to I, which is also a bit ugly. And wrong.

Etiquette may come into play with multiple indirect objects. Compare:

She just bought drinks for my friends and me


She just bought drinks for me and my friends

One of these constructions may be impolite. I wouldn't know; I'm not an expert in the finer points of etiquette but neither phrasing is gramatically incorrect.

Scarlett just left with Heath.

The waitress and I are getting along well.

Barry is forlorn and is considering changing his name by deed poll.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Happy holidays

It was my wife's turn to choose a DVD at the local Brickbuster the other night. She hired The Holiday. It was a chick flick: some funny moments but otherwise rubbish. As expected.

When it ended, my wife brought up the fact that while we in Australia and Britain use the expression "going on holiday," those on the other side of the Pacific/Atlantic in the USA use the expression "going on vacation". We wondered if, in the US, the movie might have been called The Vacation. It isn't.

But etymologically, the nuances of difference between the words holiday and vacation are interesting.

Holiday is a good old English word from the 14th century. It's so old it used to be spelled with that letter where an o and an e were joined together. It originally and fairly obviously meant "holy day" but came to mean "a day of festivity or recreation on which no work is done," a meaning that has been with us (or probably our ancestors) since the 16th century.

In the US, the term still refers to the day or days when people don't go to work. "What are you doing for the holiday?" The equivalent of this meaning in Australia is public holiday and the English refer to their bank holidays as an approximate translation.

Today, when we take a holiday or go on a holiday or, in the plural, go on holidays, we're usually talking about going somewhere. "I'm going on holidays in Europe," one might say. And one would have a lovely time; it's beautiful this time of year.

But whereas we use the term holiday to refer to where we're going, the term vacation, from vacate and the same latin root that gave us vacancy and vacant, refers not to the day itself or where you're going but where you're leaving.

When you take a vacation, you vacate your premises. (When your brain takes a vacation you might vacate your premisses. Ha ha ha, aren't I witty!) Your home becomes vacant and you might choose a place to stay that has a vacancy.

A holiday house, perhaps.

Friday, May 25, 2007

No, yes!

Whoops. Forgot I had a hobby picking apart the minutiae of other people's writing/speech for a minute there. I had to go to hospital last year to have a sense of humour operation, hence the no-posting-for-over-a-year-while-I-recovered thing.

But perhaps my brain isn't ready to take up the reins of pedantry yet; as I was writing that first sentence I completely forgot what this post was going to be about.

It's completely gone.

I'd just better go and retrace my steps.

... sat at desk... got coffee (not at desk, in kitchen)... sat at desk again... checked RSS feeds... checked emails... sent SMS to wife... read previous posts and laughed smugly to self...

Ah, that was it! Something I wrote in an email gave me the idea. Seriously, I was struggling there. Now I can fill in the 'title' part of this post.

That done, let's get on with it.

Hang on, I'm going to need more coffee.

Ah, that's better. Now, on with the post.

Have you ever been asked a question you weren't quite sure how to answer? And I don't mean in a "Daddy, what's that man doing to that lady?" kind of way. I'm talking about that wavering uncertainty you get when someone asks you a negative question and you're not sure whether to answer in the positive or the negative.

An example might be in order. Consider the question:
You're not going to eat that, are you?

How do you respond? There are a number of options. That number is four. Options are:
a) No (I'm not)
b) Yes (I am)
c) No (I am)
d) Yes (I'm not)

Of course, unless you specify the parenthetical intent of your reply, things can get rather ambiguous. It's a case of simple mathematics, or grammar; I'm not entirely sure.

We're all taught that two negatives make a positive. So, -2 x -3 =6. The functional grammar approach to this comes up with the same positive answer, to wit: Don't give me none of that cake expresses, when taken literally, an instruction to indeed give some cake to the speaker. If you give someone none of something, they get none. If you don't give them none, you're giving them some (or possibly all) of whatever it is you're serving up with a cuppa for elevenses.

So when someone says, "You don't want any, do you?" they're already putting out one negative. If you answer with "yes," a positive, you agree with the proposition and are effectively saying "yes, I don't want any".

If, however, you answer with a negative, you are in effect negating what has been proposed. In this case "No. I do want some". And this sounds a bit like you're saying "No, yes!".

English has long been referred to as a sort of melting pot of other languages. If English needs a word, we just take it from whatever language has the word we need and we use it. Off the top of my head, words like delicatessen, robot and café all fall into this category.

Why then, oh why, haven't we adopted a positive negative response from another language?

Let's take French, for instance (it being the only other language I've had any official training in). If someone were to ask you "N'aimez-vous pas de gateau?" (don't you like cake?) and you answered "oui", you would indeed be agreeing with them, that you don't like cake.

If you said "non" they'd probably think the same thing because you'd be saying "no, I don't like it".

(Actually, I don't know what they'd really think and I don't have one handy to ask. They would probably look at you funny though because you don't speak French. If you did, you'd know how to answer properly. For that matter, you'd know how to ask "don't you like cake?" a whole lot more idiomatically and eloquently than I do.)

The correct response if you did like cake would be to say "Si". Because, really... who doesn't like cake? What on earth's wrong with you?

Si is the French word for No, yes! It is a contradictory yes, one that corrects a negative assumption.

But we don't have a similar word in English, which leads to all sorts of confusion, especially for French people.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Reasons why not

I hear it in a lot of songs but am noticing it more and more in everyday speech, the phrase "the reason why".

Obviously, why rhymes with a lot more things than reason does (season, teasin', pleasin' is about all you get in song lyrics these days) so I can accept the poetic licence angle but in everyday speech, the sentence "He did it without knowing the reason why." is, I'm afraid, completely unnecessary.

Can I give you a reason? Can I tell you why?

Well, I've just illustrated it: they're kind of the same thing. If you're asking someone "why?", you could just as well be asking "for what reason?". The meaning is identical. In my earlier example, it would be sufficient to leave out either option: "He did it without knowing the reason," or "He did it without knowing why,".

To use both is tautologically superfluous, yeah?

So stop using it in everyday speech. And if you're a songwriter that employs the phrase, you could really do with taking a longer look in the rhyming dictionary when you're sitting at the piano.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


I've noticed a growing trend among media types to use a certain turn of phrase which has the hallmarks of mediaspeak and which is hopelessly redundant.

This certain turn of phrase occurs with words like 'danger' and 'risk'. Both these words imply that there's a possibility of something unfortunate or unwanted occuring. They are not absolute words, therefore they can be qualified, or even quantified: you can have a 'low fire danger' or a '40 per cent risk of getting out if you pad up to an off-spinner. However, they are completely intangible things. They don't actually exist; danger and risk aren't things you can see, touch, feel or mark in a diary. They're not things you can pick up from the shop on the way home. They are used more to estimate the likelihood of something more tangible happening: if you go skydiving there's a danger of injury or death; if you have sex, there's a risk of pregnancy (assuming that pregnancy at the time of the act is unwanted. 'Risk' carries somewhat negative connotations in this respect. If you do want a child, then there's a chance, or a possibility of pregnancy).

What then, of the writer who speaks (or writes, obviously) of 'potential dangers' or 'potential risks'? What is 'potential danger' but the possibility of the possibility of harm or injury? What is 'potential risk' but the chance of the chance of something going wrong? It doesn't matter how remote the chance is; if there's a chance that something might happen, then there's a chance. So you can say there's a low risk, or a slight, minimal or 1 per cent risk; you can say there's little danger, or that something is a bit dangerous. But potentially dangerous? If something is said to have the potential to be dangerous, then we're saying that under certain circumstances, there are risks involved; and when my Concise Oxford defines 'risk' as a chance or possibility of danger, loss, injury, or other adverse consequences then you can see that we're beginning to talk in circles. Danger of an accident or risk of an accident is the same as potential for an accident.

'Risk' and 'danger' are not faits accomplis so by using the terms 'potential risk' and 'potential danger' a writer implies that the removal of the potential will surely result in whatever the risk or danger was. By using the superfluous word, there's a risk that the words themselves may lose their meaning, until 'risk' and 'danger' are regarded as certainties, unless the 'potential' is expressly mentioned.

And just out of interest, here are the Google results for the number of usages of these, and associated phrases (just so you know I'm not making it up).

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A most indefinite article

Again, BT3 has tapped on GN's skull, hoping to tap the brain that lies therein. Of course, the skull in question is a metaphor for this website; I don't know what the tap is a metaphor for but I'm sure there's some form of head adornment we can decide on for that purpose at a later date. Anyway, this indeterminate time period's question is:

'An' historic.

Why through Jehovah's own eyeballs would it be an historic?

While you think of a response, I'll just straddle an horse and ride through an house on the way to an harbour, where I'll seat myself and the horse in an hearse anticipating our arrival. We'll chat and sing Gaelic (an) hymns as the driver drives us to an hospital for the really good drugs.

Hail me a taxi, dear Nazi, for I want to get off this crazy ride called journalism.

Posted by BT3 to grammar nazi at 12/07/2005 08:19:45 PM

Well, BT3 (if that is your real name), the rule covering the use of the indefinite article when it comes up against an aspirate is rather a simple one, complicated only by the fact that it's a rule that crosses over from the grammatical to the linguistic.

And now I'm just wondering whether I'm going to have to work out a way to put little diacritical marks above certain letters or syllables in order to explain this by example... no... hang on, I think I can cover it just using italics and/or capitals. On with the fun...

You may have been told (or you may not, how would I know?) that you use a before a consonant and an before a noun. This is almost right. The important thing to remember is that the use a or an, is determined not by spelling but by pronunciation. If you were saying 'a egg,' for example, you'd have to put a glottal stop after the a or slur the words together, much like people do when they're pretending to be drunk. We English speakers seem to be rather uncomfortable with glottal stops as they interrupt the flow of whatever rubbish it is we're talking and make it sound as though we're stuttering.

Interestingly, a few words were actually formed (or at least, altered) this way (by which I mean the insertion of an n between an a and another word). The word apron used to be the word napron (it comes from the same group of words that gives us napery, napkin and nappy) but you can see how similar it sounds to say 'an apron' and 'a napron'. People didn't used to write much in the 1500s, so when they did learn, they had a go at spelling it and stuffed it up. (Middle-age people... sheesh!)

Another English peculiarity is the tendency to drop aspirates from the beginnings of certain words, especially from those beginning with h*. The example they always used to give in primary school was heir. We were told to say 'an heir', just as if we were talking about the stuff we breathe. We also usually say 'an hour', completely dropping the pronunciation of the initial consonant.

These days though, we would never say 'an horse', 'an harbour' or 'an hymn'. I'm not sure if we ever would have (I'd have to do more reading to find out). Why then would we say 'an historic' or 'an horrific'? Well, these two words are pronounced hisTOric and hoRIffic. The emphasis is on the middle syllable; and our preference as English speakers is never to have consecutive stressed syllables ('c'mon you syllables... just calm down... don't stress'). The trouble is that when you produce an aspirate consonant (the sound h), it's actually a bit of an effort to get all that air to come out of your throat, so you're kind of producing a stressed noise (try saying history and then historic; you'll find it more comfortable pronounce the h in the word where the first syllable is stressed). So how do we avoid having two stresses together? Simple, drop the h. And what happens when we drop the h? There are now two vowel sounds together, so we need to use an instead of a.

*This whole question has raised the issue of how, now that we're a literate society, spelling often dictates pronunciation, whereas back before printing really caught on, there were any number of ways to spell a word, depending on the way you said it (we've all read Shakespeare's poems and said 'that's stupid. It doesn't even rhyme!'). These days, people are much more likely to look at the way a word is spelt (a word such as historic and say to themselves 'Well, that starts with an h, so I'd better pronounce it'. But it's not always the way it should be said, or has been said for centuries up till now. Street names are often a good way to illustrate this. There's a street in my home town called San Mateo Ave. If you know anything about Romance languages, you can see that San Mateo is probably Spanish and means Saint Matthew. It would be pronounced /SAN mə-TAY-oh/. I grew up in an isolated country town in Australia, where the Spanish-speaking population hovered at around 0.001%, so people would see the letters, sound them out in their head, and to this day, that street is pronounced /SAN MATTYoh/.

It's similar in my new hometown of Adelaide, where there are street names such as Dequetteville and Waymouth and a suburb called Greenwith. Now, because I have prior knowledge of French names and English place names, and because I didn't grow up here listening to the way the locals said them, I would pronounce the above three names /də-KET-ə-vil/, /WAY-məth/, and /GREN-əth/. But people here prefer to spell out their foreign place names, calling them /də-kWETT-ə-vil/, /WAY-MOUTH/ (giving both syllables equal stress) and /GREENwIth/ (actually enunciating the /i/ sound in the final syllable, rather than producing an unstressed 'schwa', /ə/, or neutral vowel sound).

No one's really right or wrong, I suppose. It all comes down to local variations which are all perfectly valid. It's interesting though.