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

Malapropisms

"Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." - Yogi Berra

Malapropisms. The word itself makes my heart sing…so symmetrical and full of whimsy. But the concept is deadly.

What is a malapropism? Well, it came from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals. This character routinely mistook one word for another, and the resulting language was pretty comical. When the average person uses a malapropism in speech or writing, the result is typically high hilarity and a severe dip in his/her “take me seriously” quotient. Usually, a malapropism is used because it sounds a lot like the correct word. Continue reading

Insure/ensure/assure

According to Dictionary.com, the word “insure” typically means to warrant against loss. The word you want when saying you guarantee something is “ensure.” Apparently, “insure” took on its particular sense of “make safe against loss by payment of premiums” in 1635 when it replaced “assure” in that meaning. Makes you wonder who exactly sat down in a smoke-filled room behind closed doors and decided that this was how it was going to be.

So use “insure” when speaking of premium-based insurance. Use “ensure” when you guarantee. And use “assure” when you are placating someone insincerely.

I assure you that Company X wants to insure you against loss in the event that no one can ensure quality work.

Indefinite vs. definite articles for ESL students

Dear Conan,

If the plural of fungus is fungii, would the plural of dufus be dufii?

Also, I have a more serious question. Continue reading

Indexes or indices?

Dear Conan,

This line was in a story from AP:

Major stock indexes were almost a sideshow during the session, with the credit markets as the main event.

Shouldn’t that be stock indices?

Rob

__________________________

Dear Rob,

I must say I am impressed that you, along with other faithful readers, have begun to scrutinize what you read. That means grammar is beginning to matter to you, and I weep with joy and relief.

In answer to your question, Rob, either is actually correct. I’m proud of you for even knowing the other plural form of index, especially since you went to Baylor. Bravo!

Your ally in correctness,

~Conan

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