Less vs. fewer

Hard to read, but it says "10 or fewer items"

The most famous example of the confusion between these two words is the ubiquitous “10 items or less” signs at your local Piggly Wiggly. It actually should be “10 items or fewer,” like the one to the left that was snapped at a grocery store in Ithaca, NY, home of Cornell University. You know, one of the seven Ivy League universities. See now why they’re so expensive? They know and teach the difference between less and fewer. Continue reading

Too many editors spoil the manuscript

So you’ve finally finished your magnum opus, your great American novel, the book that is going to change English literature forever. And you want said manuscript to be the best that it can be before you send it off to be abused, laughed at and soundly rejected, so that you can eventually self-publish it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I once sent a query to an agent for my manuscript Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and got my form rejection letter 24 months later. So I understand not wanting to spend the rest of your life writing queries that are answered with Xeroxed “thanks but no thanks” letters.) Continue reading

Infinitives, split and otherwise

Dear Conan,

I have a question about splitting infinitives. I was reading an article online and it struck me that the sentence “So you clearly have to state you want none” conveys to me that it is obvious that you should state you want none. Am I parsing the sentence incorrectly? It would seem that the sentence would make more sense, and be easier to read as “So you have to clearly state you want none”, or maybe “So you have to state clearly that you want none.” Continue reading

Showing vs. telling

...is what I'll be on Tuesday nights after 5/10

In honor of the final few episodes of ABC’s Lost, we’re going to briefly revisit last season’s storyline for help in understanding an oft-discussed issue facing writers of all stripes: showing vs. telling. Continue reading

Story vs. style

This is your brain reading bad writing. Any questions?

Recently, a dear friend of mine told me I had to read this book she’d just finished. One caveat, she said, was that the writing was epically bad. Hall-of-shame bad. “You just need to look past the writing to the story and the message,” she said. Okay, said I, fair enough. Even Conan can shelve her prejudices regarding poor writing if the story’s good. Plus it’s a best-seller, and it was essentially self-published. I want to get behind small publishing, want to be an encourager of the independent spirit and self-starterism, so I agreed. Continue reading

Apostrophe abuse

The Johnson is...what?

Dear Conan,

I was just in another state which uses the apostrophe quite frequently for a surname on their name plates at the front door or mail boxes. For example: The Johnson’s. I know that there should not be an apostrophe before the s but after when they are referring to all of the family. I know that you have spoken about apostrophes/possession before but I can’t remember if you mentioned anything about the above usage. I suppose I will have to let go of the mistake because I was soooo outnumbered by my family in the discussion of which was right or wrong…

Toodles,

Sheryl

__________________________

Dear Sheryl,

An apostrophe NEVER renders anything plural. When you write “The Johnson’s,” you are saying “The Johnson is” or “That belongs to the Johnson.” As you can see, neither makes any sense whatsoever.

When you use an apostrophe after the name, as in “The Johnsons’,” you are saying, “This belongs to the Johnsons,” which does make sense if it’s a nameplate on a door or mailbox. It is incorrect, however, if you say “The party is given by the Johnsons’.” What you’re saying is that the party is being given by something that belongs to the Johnsons. In other words, that apostrophe makes the name possessive. Dig?

But isn’t it interesting how people believe that determining grammar is a democratic process?

Your ally in correctness,

~Conan

What about semicolons?

Don't even think about it.

Okay, first off, I’m toying with the idea of just telling you to expunge this poseur punctuation mark like a common plantar wart. In my opinion, semicolons are the skin virus of writing. They’re not only archaic, but also pretentious. So if I were your editor, I would excise every single pompous little pause mark you threw in there. But I know you won’t let me do that. So I’m going to tell you exactly how to use them. Continue reading