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

Let’s open up the (virtual) mailbag

The mail bag is starting to overflow, so let’s open ‘er up, shall we?

Dear Conan:

If I want to express gratitude for someone copying me on an email or such, should I say “I really appreciate your keeping me informed” or “I really appreciate you keeping me informed,” or something else? I suppose I could avoid the problem by saying “Thanks for keeping me informed,” but that would mean I don’t need to consult the grammar guru.

~Mark Continue reading

Principle vs. principal

I am  your principle...uh, principal...I think...

I am your principle! Uh, principal...I think...

Here comes one that has stymied people for generations — the age-old duel between principle and principal. And why not? One is a rule you’d rather not follow and the other is a person you’d rather not run into in the hall. As always, there’s a way to keep the two separate, just like Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck: one here, one over there.  But first, how about some definitions?

Principal means first, most important, chief or head.

Principle means a law, rule or doctrine.

Both are nouns, but as you can see, principle is an idea and principal is usually a person. So here comes Conan’s mnemonic device for how to tell the two apart: The principal is your pal.