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Less or fewer?

Which is correct, less cars or fewer cars?

Perhaps you find it difficult to sort out words such as little, much, few, a few, many, less, more, a lot of and plenty of.

MANY AND MUCH

Many is always used with the plural form of countable nouns (you can read about countables and uncountables here).

She has written many articles about ancient Rome.

We have many students from Asia.

Much is always used with uncountable nouns.

The production process requires much energy.

Don’t drink too much beer!

Both many and much take the comparative form more.

There were more students last year.

I wish I had more time.

A lot of, lots of and plenty of can all be combined with both countables and uncountables.

There are lots of nice places to visit along the coast.

Take it easy – you have plenty of time.

FEW AND LITTLE

Few means ’not many, almost none’. Use few with countable nouns.

He had few interests and was quite bored.

There are few artists who have had such success.

A few means ’two or three, a handful of’. Use a few with countables.

We saw a few birds by the river.

A few members of the staff had already arrived.

The difference between few and a few applies also to little and a little. Both little and a little suggest ’not much’, but there is a difference in meaning.

I have little money sounds rather negative; you would like to have more.

I have a little money implies that you actually can buy something, although nothing expensive.

I have little money but much time.

Since he had little experience, he did not get the job.

A little rain will be good for our garden.

I would be grateful for a little extra time

Just a couple of cars on the Autobahn in Austria with some farm buildings on a hill in the background
Fewer cars and less traffic on the way back home

FEWER AND LESS

Fewer is the comparative form of few. It is used with countables.

The fewer mistakes you make in your report, the better it is.

The company has fewer employees than I expected.

Some writers use the word less where they should have fewer instead. The correct choice is to use less with an uncountable.

I like my new job, even if it gives me less money.

Perhaps you should drink less beer.

Less is used before than in expressions of time and measurements.

They had lived there for less than two years.

My job is less than three kilometres from our house.

There is also the form lesser, meaning ’not as great in size or importance as something else’.

Do you consider this a lesser crime?

We need to choose the lesser of two evils.

MORE

More is the comparative of both many and much.

I wish I had more money.

This year there are more students from Africa.

How to start and end a letter or an email

In formal correspondence it is important to start – and end – a letter with the right tone.

How you can begin a letter or an email

If you know the name of the recipient, use the title and the surname after the word Dear.

Dear Ms O’Connor,

Dear Mr Harding,

Dear Dr Johnson,

Dear Professor Green,

Using the abbreviated form Prof may seem less respectful, and the full form is recommended.

As mentioned here, there is usually a period (a full stop) after abbreviated titles in American English. In American English the salutation is usually followed by a colon instead of a comma.

If a person’s name does not reveal whether it is a man or a woman and you are not sure, write the full name:

Dear Kim Nelson,

Dear Taylor Smith,

Don’t know the name?

If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to, try to find it out. Check the website of the journal, university, department, organisation, company, etc., under ”Staff”, ”About us” or ”Contact Us”. You might also find out a person’s name on LinkedIn. Another option would be to call the office and ask for the name.

If you cannot find the name but know the person’s function, you can write, for example,

Dear Editor,

Dear Librarian,

Dear Recruiting Manager,

Dear Chief Technology Officer,

Dear Communications Director,

Dear President of Sales,

Dear Social Media Specialist,

Dear Research Assistant,

Dear Supervisor,

If you know neither the name nor the function of the person you are writing to, write

Dear Sir/Madam, and if you know the recipient is a man (woman), write Dear Sir, (Dear Madam,). If there are more than one recipient, you can write Dear Sirs,.

Some writers use the phrase

To whom it may concern, (in American English To Whom It May Concern),

but that may seem too impersonal.

Battered letterbox by the roadside in the US desert
Perhaps less suitable for formal letters

Ending a letter or an email

To end a formal letter to a person whose name you know, write

Yours sincerely, (mainly British usage)

Sincerely yours, (mainly American usage)

If you do not know the name of the recipient, write

Yours faithfully, (British English)

Yours truly, (American English)

Slightly less formal endings would be

With best regards,

With kindest regards,

And more informal:

Regards,

Kind regards,

Best regards,

These last examples would be suitable in an email, since emails are seen as less formal than letters.

What if the chairman is a woman?

Job titles such as chairman, salesman, policeman and fireman  imply that it is a man that is performing the job. And stewardess  and barmaid would suggest women. But both men and women work in the police force or stand behind the bar.

Policewoman seen from behind
Clearly not a policeman

Gender-neutral language aims at avoiding reference to a male or a female when the job is not gender-specified. Thus we use neutral forms: chair or chairperson, sales representative or salesperson, police officer, firefighter, flight attendant and bartender.

Some job titles that were seen as typically male or female are now used with reference to both genders, such as nurse, judge, doctor and model. You should avoid specifying, for instance, male nurse or female judge.

In some cases, the male form has taken over: actor instead of actress, usher instead of usherette.

Interestingly, man meant person in Old English (Anglo-Saxon). And female has nothing to do with male; it comes from the Latin femella, the diminutive form of femina, meaning woman.

When the gender of the person referred to is unknown or irrelevant, you can use the pronoun they to refer to that person. Read more about the use of they here.

To sum up, when you write in English, avoid using gender-specific job titles when there is a neutral alternative.

Do you cooperate or collaborate?

Most writers either use these two words indiscriminately or simply choose cooperation without even reflecting on the alternative collaboration.

The main difference between the two words is that collaboration involves people working together towards a shared goal, while cooperation implies somebody working to support somebody else’s goal.

Two small boys are putting stones into a box.
Collaborating towards a common goal

As a copyeditor, I work with the author of a text. The author wants me to make sure the manuscript is in fluent English without any linguistic or factual errors. (You can read here about how I work.) The author may ask for comments on a certain passage and I may want clarification of what the author intends. I can suggest an alternative formulation. Our shared objective is an article that deals with an interesting topic, has perfect language and format and is of such a quality altogether that it can be accepted for publication. That is collaboration. Collaboration is teamwork requiring mutual respect, trust and adaptability.

In my job as a copyeditor I may come across a word that is totally unknown to me. I can then call an expert to ask about that word. For example, I once called the coast guard to ask what word they used in a certain context. Thanks to their cooperation I could achieve my goal – to use that word correctly.

Should you have a hyphen or not? The answer is here.

Perhaps some writers hesitate to use the word collaboration since it has a less agreeable connotation. A collaborator is someone who helps an enemy that has occupied their country in a war.

How to use the semicolon

Many writers seem to be unsure of how to use the semicolon.

This image shows what a semicolon looks like.
A combination of a comma and a full stop

The semicolon looks like a combination of a full stop and a comma, and that is an indication of how it is used. Like the comma and the full stop, the semicolon separates clauses. The semicolon links two independent clauses that are closely related. In other words, we use a semicolon between two complete sentences to indicate that what they say is of equal importance. The semicolon can replace words such as and and but.

Finally, Tom found his bike behind the garage; it was rusty and the tires were flat.
This method is based on many years of research; particularly important are the findings from four studies in the heavy vehicles industry.
The potential variables are numerous; they include everything that might influence the evaluation criteria.

You cannot have a semicolon after a dependent clause beginning with words such as since, although, when, because, etc.

Since she had visited the city several times, she knew all the tourist spots.
She had visited the city several times; she knew all the tourist spots.

To avoid confusion, use a semicolon to separate groups in an enumeration.

Among the cities in the study were Hamburg, Germany; Milan, Italy; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Helsinki, Finland.

Don’t use the semicolon where you must have a colon!

He had three main interests: vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

You cannot write *He had three main interests; vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture (For the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text). After a semicolon there must be a complete, independent, clause with a subject and a verb. So you could write: He had three main interests; they were vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

Disinterested or uninterested?

Are you disinterested or are you uninterested? If you are not sure about the difference between those two words, you are not alone. Many writers find it difficult to distinguish between them.

DISINTERESTED

If you are disinterested, you have no stake in the actual matter, you are impartial or neutral. It is understandable that this word is often used in legal or business contexts.

Can we take it for granted that the judge in this case is truly disinterested?

UNINTERESTED

You should use uninterested if you mean that someone is bored or not engaged.

How can we catch the attention of uninterested students?

Uninterested?

Chances are that you will find disinterested used where you would expect uninterested. Not surprisingly, the two words are often confused. But you, as a good writer of English, will of course make the distinction.

Sensible and sensitive

Here you will learn the difference between sensible and sensitive, two words coming from the same Latin root but with very different meanings.

SENSIBLE

If you are sensible, you have common sense, you are reasonable and have good judgement. You don’t make stupid mistakes.

Be sensible! Your chances of winning the lottery are close to nil.

Used about clothes, shoes or other things, sensible can mean practical, functional, not fashionable.

Bob’s wife understood his love for fast sports cars but managed to talk him into buying a sensible car that could accommodate their big family.

A man is cycling on a river wearing sensible weatherproof clothing
Make sure you wear sensible clothing when cycling on the river!

SENSITIVE

A sensitive person can be easily affected or upset by what others say or do.

Why are you so sensitive to criticism?

Being sensitive can also mean that you are understanding and sympathetic to other people’s needs.

As a good mother she was always sensitive to her children’s needs.

Used about things, sensitive means delicate or fragile, easily damaged, needing protection.

A baby’s skin is very sensitive to sunlight.
This is sensitive information.

The corresponding nouns are sensibility and sensitivity.

Big, large and great

Can you sort out big, large and great?

Generally speaking, big describes weight or extent, large is often related to dimensions or volume and great suggests something impressive. Great is often used with abstract nouns.

BIG

Big is used more often than large. In fact, big is one of the most frequent words in the English language. Big may also sound a little less formal than large.

They have a big mansion in the countryside.

Big often means important, powerful, successful:
That’s a big decision.
He is a big tycoon in the automotive industry.

Big can also mean older or elder:
My big brother has helped me a lot.

LARGE

As mentioned above, large often refers to dimension or volume.
They have a large house with a very large garden.
I have a large collection of posters from the 1960s.

A large black bird with its wings stretched out is silhouetted against the sky
A large bird or, if you like, a big bird

Large is more common with some quantity words such as the following:
A large amount
A large number
To a large extent
On a large scale
A large percentage
A large quantity

With food and clothes we use large:
I’d like a large coffee, please.
Those shoes are too large for you.

Large, not big, is used in the combination small, medium, large.

The expression at large has two meanings, 1) free, at liberty and 2) as a whole, in general:
The prisoner is still at large.
These findings relate to society at large.

Big and large are only used with countable nouns (read here about countable and uncountable nouns).
You cannot talk about *big traffic or *large traffic (for the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text). Instead we use heavy traffic, intense traffic or a lot of traffic.

Big and large often overlap in meaning when we talk about size.
A big house.
A large house.

It is sometimes said that big implies an element of emotion, surprise, etc., especially in fixed expressions such as the following:
Big deal!
She’s a big fan of the Rolling Stones.
He’s a big liar.

A big-headed man is not the same as a large-headed man! A big-headed man thinks he is more important or cleverer than others, while a large-headed man just has a large head.

Susan is my big sister – she is older than me.
Susan is my large sister – she is physically larger than my other siblings.

GREAT

Great implies a large size:
All creatures great and small.

Great often means distinguished, remarkable:
She is one of the greatest novelists of our time.
The performance was a great success.
I have great respect for her abilities.
He has great wisdom.
My cousin is really great at tennis.

To vary your language, you should use synonyms. In a dictionary of synonyms you will find many words to describe size or importance, such as huge, enormous, sizeable, impressive, momentous, substantial, comprehensive, extensive, immense, tremendous, prominent, distinguished, etc.

How the English language changes

A language is a living organism that constantly changes. Words often take on another meaning over time.

Let me give you an example:

HOTHOUSE

Originally this word meant a heated building, usually made of glass, used to grow plants.

This is what it still means today, but the word is now also used figuratively referring to a place or situation with intense activity, usually to promote the development of somebody or something.

New York in the 1940s was a hothouse of artists and intellectuals.
For decades the palace was a hothouse of intrigue.

Hothouse can also be used as a verb meaning to train a child intensively in sport, music, academic work, etc. This often has a negative connotation.

The articles imply that women are hothousing their children when they are simply trying to do the best they can for their families.

While walking to school a father is checking his daughter's knowledge to see if she has done her homework
Are we hothousing our children?

So here we see a change in meaning from something good – promoting the growth of plants – to something negative – disapproval of the way some parents train their children.

A word related to hothouse is hotbed, which originally also had to do with the growing of plants. When used figuratively, hotbed especially in British English usually refers to an unwanted or unpleasant activity.

The village had turned into a hotbed of disease.

Can you think of other English words that have taken on a completely new and different meaning?

Do you know the difference between beside and besides?

Many writers find it difficult to distinguish between beside and besides.

BESIDE

Beside is a preposition meaning next to, by the side of.
Can I sit beside you?
I can never teach my dog to walk calmly beside me.

A little boy is walking beside his grandpa on a track through a forest
It felt safe walking beside grandpa

Beside can also mean in comparison with.
I feel stupid beside you.

Beside is used in a couple of sayings:
That’s beside the point. (That is not related to what we are talking about.)
He was completely beside himself with joy. (He had very strong feelings of joy.)

BESIDES

Besides is a preposition meaning in addition to, apart from.
What’s your favourite food besides pizza?
Who was there besides you and your girlfriend?
Besides being a language teacher she is also a talented piano player.

Besides can also be a linking adverb giving additional information.
Sorry I can’t stay longer. It’s a long way home and, besides, I have to get up early tomorrow.

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