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by Julia Sneden

I was reared by a language-loving mother who was quick to pounce on a daughter who occasionally (well, all right, perhaps more than occasionally) offended the rules for speaking correct English. To wit: It looks like its going to rain, I said.

You may say It looks like rain, or It looks as if its going to rain, but you may not use like as a conjunction. It cannot join two independent clauses. Once you put that its going to youve created another independent clause, so you need as if, not like.

And again: Susan and me are going to the store.

Susan and I, came the disapproving snap. If you arent sure which to use, just leave out Susan and listen to the sentence in your head. Would you say me is going to the store?

That handy test also works in reverse: She told Susan and I that we were wrong. Leave out the Susan and think: would you say "She told I that I was wrong?

I spent a lot of my early and adolescence sighing and rolling my eyes at the constant stream of correction. In the ensuing years, however, I have been grateful (mostly) for her earnest efforts to insist on correct English. Taking the SAT verbal section was a cinch, as was placing out of bonehead English in college. My earliest bosses, too, appreciated my ability to clean up their lousy grammar when I quietly re-wrote their letters. At least I think they did, because they never questioned me. Of course theres the distinct possibility that they never noticed the difference.

The downside of all that effort, however, has been that it is painful to me when I hear the transgressions of others. Among the worst offenders are the people who write ads or promotions for television programs. Unfortunately their tortured sentences wield great power, so that children today are bombarded with double negatives, subjects and verbs that dont agree, pronoun confusion, adjectives used as adverbs, etc.

Take for example, if you will, the casual use of the word less instead of fewer. Less as an adjective that refers to amount. For example: I would prefer less pain than I felt the last time you did a root canal, please.

Fewer, on the other hand, implies number: I have cleaned house fewer than three times this month.

The ad that really fries my eardrums is the one that claims that buying New Car X will mean less stops at the gas station. No, no, no! I reckon that everyone would prefer fewer stops at the gas station, so that we could spend less money than we used to. In fact, a car that goes farther on fewer gallons of gasoline would be less of a problem than my car.

Is that such a difficult concept to grasp?

The poor little word less is also abused by people who casually say I could care less. If one could care less, one must care in some amount, no matter how small, and it would therefore be possible to work on caring less. The correct phrase is I couldnt care less which means that one absolutely does not care, even a jot, , not even a smidgeon, and thus could not go any lower in the amount of care expended, even if you worked at it..

As for me, I will never care more about the use of less, even if I live to be a hundred. Which is to say I care to the max.

More or less.

©2009 Julia Sneden for


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