U Suck @ Grammer*: Less Than Perfect

After the whole Literacy Privilege/old, white, sexist, racist men invented grammar and if you care about it you are one, too thing, I think I shied* away from writing another post in my grammar series for fear of looking like a snobby elitist grammar fuddy-duddy.   But then I realized: I am a snobby elitist grammar fuddy-duddy, and you know it, and I know it, and sometimes you just have to be your damn self.

So, today we're back with a new U Suck @ Grammer, acknowledging that language is not an immutable thing, that language is constantly changing, that word-use ebbs and flows and slang becomes uniformly accepted and archaic words drop out of the vernacular and high schoolers have an ever-harder time understanding Shakespeare and we fuddy-duddies have an ever-harder time understanding high schoolers.  It's good that language evolves -- and even if it weren't good, it's true, so we might as well get used to it and embrace it and find interesting new things to like about it.  But, while language is transforming more rapidly than ever, the whole system hasn't gone out the window yet; it's not changing too rapidly, and you guys still have to write resumes and shit for work where you don't want to sound like an idiot.

So, today we're going to talk about two sort-of related word pairs that are widely misused and confused:  "then" vs. "than" and "lesser" vs. "fewer."  Luckily, for as frequently as these words are transposed, the rules governing them are actually pretty simple. 


First, and please listen to me: "then" and "than" may only be one letter apart, but they are different words, you guys.  They're not interchangeable; you don't get to pick which vowel looks prettier in your sentence.

"Then" is an adverb, almost exclusively used to orient events in time.  You would say: the chicken came first, then the egg.  Or, "I watched Sharknado, then I watched Ghost Shark because it came on next on SyFy."  "Then" is  also used with our favorite tense -- the subjunctive -- following the word "if" in a conditional clause.  For example, you could say: "if I were the writer of Sharknado, then I would kill myself."

On the other hand, "than" is exclusively used as a comparison. You would say: "I liked Sharknado better than I liked Ghost Shark."  Or, "I'm a better writer than the slobs who get paid buckets of money to write crap like Sharknado."  Or, "my face looks 70% less leathery than Tara Reid's face."

Keep in mind that unlike "then," the word "than" has no synonyms, so no other word will do in its place.  If you could say "subsequently" or "afterward" or "following," then you are looking for the word "then."  It doesn't get easier than that, right?


I say the second pair of words is related to the first because "lesser" and "fewer" are always necessarily paired with "than."  Now that we know where to use "than," we can further polish our writing by mastering the trickier, subtler difference between "lesser" and "fewer."  The short of it is: you use "fewer" whenever you're discussing something quantifiable, something you can count.  You use "lesser" when you're describing something abstract or massive or otherwise uncountable.  Let's look at some commonly-encountered examples:



How Whole Foods does it is the right way: 10 items or fewer.  Remember it this way: Whole Foods is super pretentious and snobby, so they would have correct grammar.   (Note: Publix recently got a grammar award for changing their signs.) 

Okay, quiz time.  One of these is correct and one of these is incorrect.  (Hint: it's not "Big Taste.")  Can you tell which is which?

That's right, smartypants, 40% less fat is fine, but it should be 30% fewer calories. Why? Because calories are necessarily quantifiable.  This one may seem a little trickier because, you say, isn't fat, too, measured numerically?  The difference is that a "calorie" is itself a measurement, and "fat" is itself an object.  Fat can be measured, of course, but when it's counted, another measurement term is required.  That's why the ad would be correct if it said "40% fewer grams of fat," but as it stands, "less" is appropriate.

To conclude, because I am a worldly and thoughtful person interested in self-improvement and becoming less of a lame, vanilla, rule-follower, I will at least share with you the counter-point to all of the lessons that I have taught you today:  Motivated Grammar's "'10 items or less' is just fine."  (I'll note that the author isn't motivated enough to capitalize his title.  Maybe I just haven't gotten to "Not capitalizing shit is just fine.")***  I mean, I still totally think you sound smarter and better if you follow 'dem rules, but it's worth hearing a smart, proactive person explain the linguistic history and make the argument that you can be SO SMART that you purposefully sound dumb.  You know, like a hipster would. 

* Because I always have to say it, "Grammer" is purposefully spelled wrong in the title.  For humor and irony and all.

**I looked up how to spell "shied" like 14 times. It looks so stupid and wrong.

*** I'll also note that the author of "Motivated Grammar" is a computational psycholinguist with a "Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Princeton University and a Master’s in Linguistics from UCSD."  But y'all should still totally listen to me, the theater major with a law degree from a state school, when it comes to words and stuff.
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October 23, 2013 at 11:18 AM delete

In regards to the whole Literacy Privilege/old, white, sexist, racist men invented grammar and if you care about it you are one, too thing: there's an essay that I think you may enjoy by David Foster Wallace (of "Infinite Jest" fame). It's admittedly a somewhat long read, but I got a kick out of it, and it addressed that same issue mentioned above.

http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/DFW_present_tense.html (Start after the second section break, with "Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography"... or don't read it at all. Because it is, again, quite long.)


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