In his segment "Stephen Colbert's Sound Advice", he reported on an MIT study that found longer essays got higher scores on the SAT than shorter ones, regardless of errors. This doesn't surprise me because Educational Testing Service has been doing its best to screw up education for years. (Don't get me started on standardized testing. I'll save that for later.) Accompanying his monologue was this wonderful caption. "More Words - Less Errors" You could have knocked me over with a feather. I felt like the Native American in the 70s "Stop Littering" campaign with a single tear trickling down my face at what had been done to my beloved language.
If you don't see a problem with that, we need to talk. What he meant to say (or write, actually) was, of course, "More Words - Fewer Errors". Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people know this. The issue is the difference between countable and uncountable nouns.
A countable noun is a noun that can be pluralized, usually by adding ~s to the end of the word, like dogs and geeks. (Thank God I can't be pluralized, huh?) You can put simple counting words in front, like one child / two children or one bankruptcy / two bankruptcies. (Usually the former precedes the latter.)
Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, cannot be pluralized. You cannot add an ~s to the end and you cannot precede them with numbers. You cannot say informations and you cannot count ice. (You can only say one ice / two ices if you are Italian, referring of course to the wonderful summer treat that is an Italian ice.) Furthermore, if you try to count uncountable nouns, you have to use a phrase with of, as in a loaf of bread or an ear of corn. (How weird is that one, by the way? Who thought of that? Van Gogh?)
When you ask about the number of a certain countable thing, you ask how many, as in "How many more minutes am I going to waste reading this damn blog?" However, when you ask about the amount of an uncountable thing, you ask how much, as in "How much time does this dork waste writing this damn blog?" (Don't get me started on how many times I've wanted to give demerits to students who I've overheard asking "How much pages did you read last night?")
This is exactly the same rule to follow with less and fewer. Less goes with much and can only be used with uncountable nouns. Similarly, if a noun is countable, you must use fewer, which goes with many.
- How much money do you have?
- I have a lot less money than I used to. Stupid Colts.
- How many times have people thanked you for correcting their grammar?
- A lot fewer than you would think.
- Use less esses. (Maybe too hard to say, especially with a lisp. However, it might be perfect for a speech therapist.)
- Less and an ~s make a mess. (Nah. My wife would yell at me for not cleaning it up.)
- If it ends with ~s, don't use less.
Ooo. I like that last one. Let's use that.
(If you would like more perspective on uncountable nouns, I have added the explanations that I give my English as a Second Language students, but hopefully in a more entertaining way.)
Here are the rules of thumb I teach my students. As far as I know, I made some of this up, but it seems to work most of the time. In order for them to work, please try to avoid the typical teenage behavior of always trying to disprove everything an old fuht like me says. (Fuht is a lovely Hawaiian word for air biscuit or the elementary school favorite SBD.) Keep an open mind and an even broader definition.
1. Liquids: All liquids are uncountable, even really thick ones, like toothpaste or grandma's oatmeal. (The lumps, however, are countable.) I include chocolate on the list because it is a liquid when it is made and is thickened by other agents. (I should know. I grew up close to Hershey, Pennsylvania and even went on the factory tour a couple of times before they closed it down. The factory definitely smelled better than the paper mill that was also nearby.)
"But wait!" I hear you think. "I can order two waters at a restaurant." Actually, what you are ordering is two glasses of water. Conversational conventions allow for this, but the original grammatical form is still uncountable. (Hey. I like a few beers as much, probably more, than the next guy, be they in cans or bottles or coming straight out of the tap. Give it up for keg-stands, ya'll.)
2. Things that are too small to count: These would be things like salt, sugar and sand. I suppose it would be possible to count every grain of sand on the beach, but then they'd have to get Dustin Hoffman to play you in the movie.
3. Things that cannot be touched or held: You cannot hold information. You can hold the newspaper or book that contains the information, or the iPad by which you are reading this blog. (I really, really want one of those.) However, the information itself is ethereal. (How's that for an SAT word, Mr. SAT-writer guy?) However, ideas for some reason are countable. I guess if you can steal it, you can count it. (See the "cock-a-roaching" reference in the previous blog.) Please add to this list my future teenaged daughter, you hormone-filled high school boys.
4. Categories or group nouns: Close your eyes and imagine fruit. Some of you may picture a luscious, ripe peach. Others might think of a tart cherry. Because it describes a whole plethora of fruit (again with the SAT words), fruit is an uncountable category noun. On the other hand, if I asked you to imagine an apple, everyone would imagine roughly the same thing.
5. Things that are countable when you buy or make them, but uncountable when you eat or use them: This list would include pizza, ham and pineapple, which, when put together, make a lovely Hawaiian pizza. When you order pizza you ask for two large pizzas. However, when the pizza is eaten, few people can eat the whole thing, so they eat slices of pizza. (Unless you are Big Ralphie, who impressed us all with his downing of two large pan pizzas at an all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut near G-burg. And then played a pick-up game of basketball. You da man!)