Nothing whips grammar purists into a frothing frenzy more than supposed errors in the use of “less” and “fewer.”  The rule is pretty simple: use “less” with non-count nouns: less sugar; use “fewer: with count nouns: fewer cups of sugar. But little complications crop up. One can have many countable problems—who doesn’t?—but suppose one of … More Less/Fewer

Sometimes More Words Are Better

Economy of language is usually preferable to verbosity, but sometimes more words are better. When we were visiting friends recently, our host, disputing something his wife said, replied, “What you say flows from the bull’s anus.” It was refreshing alternative to the retort “That’s bull shit” and made everybody, including his wife, chuckle. Maybe refreshing … More Sometimes More Words Are Better

Cutting Words

Revise these sentences to make them less wordy and compare your revisions with mine. Sylvia very hurriedly scribbled her name, address, and phone number on the back of a greasy napkin. Susan’s stylish jeans, made of leather, were too warm for our climate. She got red at my words, which were spoken in a moment … More Cutting Words


We used to talk real good instead of well We said gee, llamas are the cat’s pyjamas The bee’s knees, the big cheese and gosh, that’s swell Now it’s what the fuck is with the llamas? Totally awesome, but don’t be a knob Llama shit is gross and will barf you out It used to … More Usage

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar

Linguists—not polyglots who speak many languages, but scholars who study language—are concerned with describing how a language works. That’s descriptive grammar. Those who teach English are concerned with prescriptive grammar, that is, with teaching the grammar and usage rules of Standard English. But who made the rules? We can easily forget that grammar does not … More Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar

Killing Adjectives

Mark Twain once wrote, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” It’s good stylistic advice, although Twain was exaggerating, of course. We couldn’t very well kill off all adjectives. “What color was the dog that bit you?” “What?” “The color of the dog?” “Uh…” But using too many adjectives (and adverbs) is a common mistake … More Killing Adjectives

Say What You Mean

Once on a bus I overheard a couple of teenagers having a conversation that sounded something like this: “So, I’m like… and she’s like…So, I go…” “You didn’t!  So, she’s like….. and you’re like…” “Yeah, no kidding!” “Get out!” No one could accuse these kids of being wordy. The staccato phrases were accompanied by facial … More Say What You Mean

Orwell Again

George Orwell’s Rules of Good Writing Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can … More Orwell Again

Wordiness Again

Using too many words per thought is actually a bigger problem than bad grammar in writing these days. In many cases, bad grammar—i.e., usage that violates the rules of Standard English—doesn’t affect meaning at all. Look at these two sentences:                Jadwiga don’t got no cigarettes.              Jadwiga doesn’t have any cigarettes.   Both … More Wordiness Again