It’s unfair. English should not do this to us—confuse us with word cousins when all we want to do is to crank out that press release or update the website and go home.
Words such as less and fewer. Lay and lie. Affect and effect.
Given that we’re stuck with this language until Esperanto or Klingon prevails, it behooves the citizens of Communicatorland to avoid common errors. To help us with that, there’s Grammar Girl.
Grammar Girl, known among the philistines as Mignon Fogarty, blogs and produces a podcast on grammar and writing. She has been widely quoted in the media and has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
In a Ragan webcast set to run April 23, Fogarty offers tips for evading the booby traps that language gremlins set out in our path. Her webcast will run in tandem with a 30-minute explainer on editing featuring Ragan Communications Executive Editor Rob Reinalda, who reigns across the wolf-infested northlands of Twitter as the dread @Word_Czar.
This video clip is taken from the Fogarty and Reinalda webcast.
Fogarty offers a handful of linguistic pitfalls and how to avoid them:
Less vs. fewer
It’s simple, Fogarty says. Less is for things you don’t count. Fewer is for things you do count.
“We don’t count furniture,” she says. “I don’t say we have eight furnitures in our living room. So if someone asks, ‘How much furniture did you sell?’ … the answer is, ‘Less furniture than we expected to sell.'”
“Hang on,” you may say. “Can’t we count chairs?”
One, two, three, four chairs were stolen from the executive conference room and replaced with nacho-stained ones.
How many chairs were taken? Fewer chairs than the bigwigs deserved after the big layoff.
Same with fruit as a general category: uncountable. We don’t say, “I packed three fruits in my lunch.”
“But lemons are countable,” Fogarty adds. “You could say I used 10 lemons to make that lemonade.”
How many lemons did you pick?
Fewer lemons than last year.
Those Brits. Who told them to start tacking S’s on the end of towards, backwards, afterwards, and forwards?
Simmer down, patriots. It’s not incorrect. Neither is our way. We’re one big glorious family of English-language abusers. But do remember your audience’s preferences.
“We [Americans] like shortcuts,” Fogarty says. “We’ve made our words shorter. We’ve lopped off all the S’s.”
Sit and set
You remember subjects and objects from elementary school, of course. Well, there are two kinds of verbs:
- Transitive verbs transfer the action to the object. The dog chewed the ball.
- Intransitive verbs don’t. The dog chewed. It’s just about the dog and his chewing, Fogarty says.
To sit is intransitive. Bob sits quietly, hoping the execs didn’t notice the chair swap. There’s no object in his sitting.
The transitive form of the verb is set. Bob set his pen on the desk when the CEO roared his name from the conference room.
“Sit takes no object,” Fogarty says. “Set requires an object.”
Lie vs. lay
In present tense, lie is the intransitive form. Fogarty offers these examples:
Lie down, Muffin. My dog can lie around all day.
Lay requires an object:
Muffin will lay the ball at my feet. Muffin lays the ball on the ground.
Fogarty says confusion persists because of the children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” But lay still has an object in that sentence, she notes. It means, “I am laying myself down.”
Toss in that lay is the past tense of lie, and there’s bound to be verbal chaos. Just remember good ol’ Muffin:
Lie down, Muffin. My dog can lie around all day. She lay around all day yesterday, too.
Affect vs. effect
Affect is usually a verb. Effect is usually a noun.
As a mnemonic device, think of the (sort of) acronym RAVEN: Affect, Verb. Effect, Noun. “That’ll get you there almost all the time,” Fogarty says.
Another way to think of it, she says, is this. Affect starts with an A. A is for action.
“Verbs are action,” Fogarty says. “The rain is affecting her. It is making her happy or wet.”
In effect, the noun, here’s something to remember: the double E in The E, as in the effect. You can insert a definite article before effect.
The effect was eye-popping.
“Those two E’s are your clue,” Fogarty says. (That’s true even if an adjective is inserted between the and effect¸ as in the lighting effect.)
Alternatively, can you add the article here: “He was [the] effected by the layoffs”? Nope. Makes no sense. The word must be affected.
Yes, I know. Hang on. Fogarty’s way ahead of you. True, there are exceptions.
“Sometimes effect can mean bring about,” she says. “This is one of the few times you will see effect as a verb. And it’s almost always used in the phrase effect change.”
Affect can also, rarely, be a noun.