Counting or Measuring?

rogersgeorge on September 26th, 2017
We use “few” for counting, which is a number, and “less” for measuring, which refers to amounts. But you have room for ambiguity sometimes—referring to time, for instance, and distances. Depending on what you’re saying, either way can work.

Here, is Mr. Tinkerson counting the number of sheets or measuring the amount of paper?

Either way makes sense. Same thing when you’re referring to time. Yes, we count the hours, but it took less than three hours to give blood Saturday. Since time is continuous, you can measure it as well as count the units. Same thing for distance.

So be careful, and think about whether you’re measuring or counting.

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We Don’t Do Tech Writing Like This Any More

rogersgeorge on September 20th, 2017

Here’s a sentence from some correspondence from the 1700’s:

Your Majesty’s Ministers, persevering in their measures, and proceeding to open hostilities for enforcing them, have compelled us to arm in our own defence, and have engaged us in a controversy so peculiarly abhorrent to the affections of your still faithful Colonists, that when we consider whom we must oppose in this contest, and if it continues, what may be the consequences, our own particular misfortunes are accounted by us only as parts of our distress.

It’s from a document called “The Olive Branch Petition,” addressed to King George III (but delivered to the Earl of Dartmouth) not long before the revolutionary war, written by Richard Penn and Arthur Lee, representing the Continental Congress. The king wouldn’t even read it, but not because of the complexity of the sentence, I suspect.

Here’s an exercise for you: Rewrite that sentence in today’s English. You can make more than one sentence out of it, and I recommend you do.

PS—I just realized that this is my 500th post! As my brother would say, Hoo-ah!

Adjectives Don’t Show Number in English

rogersgeorge on September 18th, 2017

In a lot of languages, when you put an adjective with a noun, the adjective has to agree with the noun. Feminine nouns get feminine endings on their adjectives (gender), plural nouns get plural adjectives (number), and so on. If you know other languages, you know what I mean by the “and so on,” such as the effect of case.

English (with a few exceptions, such as court martial, poet laureate, secretary general) puts the adjective right in front of its noun, and it doesn’t matter much what kind of noun. Here’s an example of getting it wrong:

The New York Times (and others) reported on Plimpton 322, a famous four-millennia-old Babylonian tablet featuring a table of Pythagorean triples.

You might argue that it’s a compound adjective (hyphenated correctly, by the way), but it should still be “millennium.” The whole thing is an adjective, so it shouldn’t show number. An example of correctness:

He drives a four-door car and a sixteen-wheel truck.

That incorrect usage, by the way, is from an interesting and well-written site called Math with Bad Drawings. Even if you’re not much on math, give it a look. The bad drawings are actually pretty good, even. Here’s one:

If you’re a native English speaker, you probably do this without thinking; this post is so you’re aware of what you’re doing already, and so you don’t stumble.


Two Pretty-Much Useless Words

rogersgeorge on September 14th, 2017

The words are “within” and “upon.” Both are fancy versions of what they actually mean, namely “in” and “on.” For example:

This line of code can be found within that module.

Instead, how about:

This line of code can be found in that module.

We’ll skip my usual rant about using the passive; isn’t that second example better? It’s more direct, doesn’t call attention to itself.

Okay, it’s been several posts since I posted a comic, so here’s one to illustrate “upon.” My sincere thanks to Zach Weinersmith for his Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, (for Sept 13, 2017. You’ll have to click back to that date if you’re visiting from some day after the 13th.). It’s one of my favorite comics. They are intellectually sophisticated and funny.

The usage is in the first panel. I admit, in this context, “upon” is probably appropriate, but I think that makes the point. Are you writing an explanation for something, or are you quoting a goat skull?

So here’s the rule:

If “in” or “on” make sense, don’t use “within” or “upon.”


Test Answers 3

rogersgeorge on September 10th, 2017

Remember, the original test is here. go take it if you haven’t already. What’s the fun of free answers?

  1. So, the Rangers are based out of Igloolik.
  2. So what does a potential new state of matter for the rest of us?
  3.  Indiana law explicitly forbids government employees such as the Governor to conduct politics on state accounts, so it’s credible to argue Pence had no other options.
  4. “The Church and State owes them all an apology,” she said.
  5. It stands in stark contrast with a pair of current cartoons by fairly mainstream conservative cartoonists that mock Democrats for being obsessed with the Russian connections.

And the answers:

  1. They are based in that place. Even based at works, but not out of! Maybe they venture out of Igloolik occasionally…
  2. Okay, I usually don’t bother with simple carelessness, but these are professionals! What does a potential new state of matter mean for the rest of us?
  3. The reference to the governor is an aside (aka non-restrictive) so it should have commas before and after it. “…employees, such as the governor, to conduct…” but that’s not the main goof! Do you forbid someone to do something, or forbid them from doing it? You could also throw a “that” in front of Pence.
  4. Ah, good old subject-verb agreement. You should all have gotten this one. “Church and state” is a plural, so you want the plural verb, “owe.”
  5. Cartoonists are people, people. So it’s cartoonists who mock Democrats. “Who” is for people, “that” is for non-people.