Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

by Mignon Fogarty


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Online sensation Grammar Girl makes grammar fun and easy in this New York Times bestseller

Are you stumped by split infinitives? Terrified of using "who" when a "whom" is called for? Do you avoid the words "affect" and "effect" altogether?

Grammar Girl is here to help!

Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, is determined to wipe out bad grammar—but she's also determined to make the process as painless as possible. A couple of years ago, she created a weekly podcast to tackle some of the most common mistakes people make while communicating. The podcasts have now been downloaded more than twenty million times, and Mignon has dispensed grammar tips on Oprah and appeared on the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

Written with the wit, warmth, and accessibility that the podcasts are known for, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing covers the grammar rules and word-choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers. From "between vs. among" and "although vs. while" to comma splices and misplaced modifiers, Mignon offers memory tricks and clear explanations that will help readers recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules. Chock-full of tips on style, business writing, and effective e-mailing, Grammar Girl's print debut deserves a spot on every communicator's desk.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805088311
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/08/2008
Series: Quick & Dirty Tips
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 104,292
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.12(h) x 0.66(d)
Lexile: 960L (what's this?)

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty is the creator of Grammar Girl and founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips Network. A technical writer and entrepreneur, she has served as an editor and producer at a number of health and science Web sites. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. She lives in Reno, Nevada.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


EVEN THOUGH MY SHOW is called "Grammar Girl," the secret is that it’s not usually grammar that confounds people—it’s usage. I get complaints from purists, but Usage Girl doesn’t have the same ring to it as Grammar Girl, and my books and podcasts aren’t for purists anyway—they’re for people who actually need help. Usage is about choosing the right word or phrase. It’s something teachers generally expect you to pick up on your own, and it’s the thing you’re most likely to get skewered for if you screw up. (Life is so unfair!) I don’t recall ever being taught the difference between affect and effect, for example; I was just expected to know.

Certain words are more difficult than others. I call them the dirty words, and we’re going to tackle them here.


A lot of people learned the rule that you put a before words that start with consonants and an before words that start with vowels, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

The actual rule is that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound.

Squiggly waited for an hour.

Aardvark was on a historic expedition.

An hour is correct because hour starts with a vowel sound. People seem to most commonly get tripped up by words that start with the letters h and u because sometimes these words start with vowel sounds and sometimes they start with consonant sounds. For example, it is a historic expedition because historic starts with an h sound, but it is an honorable fellow because honorable starts with an o sound.

Squiggly had a Utopian idea.

Aardvark reminded him it’s an unfair world.

The letters o and m can be tricky too. Usually you put an before words that start with o, but sometimes you use a. For example, you would use a if you were to say, "She has a one-track mind," because one track starts with a w sound.

Squiggly wants to work as a missionary.

Aardvark wants to get an MBA.

Other letters can also be pronounced either way. Just remember it is the sound that governs whether you use a or an, not the first letter of the word.

Pronunciation Wars

Since pronunciation is what guides the choice between a and an, people in different regions, where pronunciations are different, can come to different conclusions about which is the appropriate word.

Many pronunciation differences exist between British and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced "erb" in American English and "her-b" in British English.

Even within the United States there can be regional pronunciation differences. Although the majority of people pronounce the h in historic, some people on the East Coast pronounce historic as "istoric" and thus argue that an historic monument is the correct form.

In the rare cases where this is a problem, use the form that will be expected in your country or by the majority of your readers.


A and an are called indefinite articles. The is called a definite article. The difference is that a and an don’t say anything special about the word that follows. For example, think about the sentence "I need a horse." You’ll take any horse—just a horse will do. But if you say, "I need the horse," then you want a specific horse. That’s why the is called a definite article—you want something definite. At least that’s how I remember the name.

Tweedle Thee and Tweedle Thuh

I find it interesting that there are two indefinite articles to choose from (a and an) depending on the word that comes next, but there is only one definite article (the). But there’s a special pronunciation rule about the that is similar to the rule about when to use a and an: The is pronounced "thuh" when it comes before a word that starts with a consonant sound, and it’s pronounced "thee" when it comes before a word that starts with a vowel sound. It can also be pronounced "thee" for emphasis, for example, if you wanted to say, "Twitter is the [pronounced "thee"] hot social networking tool." I actually have trouble remembering this rule and have to make special marks in my podcast scripts to remind myself to get the pronunciation right. I think I must have missed the day they covered this in school, and I’ve never recovered.



The correct spelling is "a lot."

Alot is not a word.

A lot means "a large number."

Allot means "to parcel out."



If you don’t know the difference between affect and effect, don’t worry—you’re not alone. These two words are consistently among the most searched for words in online dictionaries, and I get at least one e-mail message a week asking me to explain the difference. In fact, the confusion over affect and effect could be why impact has emerged to mean "affect" in business writing: people give up trying to figure out the difference between affect and effect and rewrite their sentences, unfortunately substituting an equally inappropriate word. (See "Impact," page 33.)

The difference between affect and effect is actually pretty straightforward: the majority of the time you use affect as a verb and effect as a noun.

Affect most commonly means something like "to influence" or "to change."

The arrows affected Aardvark.

The rain affected Squiggly’s plans.

Affect can also mean, roughly, "to act in a way that you don’t feel," as in He affected an air of superiority.

Effect has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but to me the meaning "a result" seems to be at the core of most of the definitions.

The effect was eye-popping.

The sound effects were amazing.

The rain had no effect on Squiggly’s plans.

So most of the time affect is a verb and effect is a noun. There are rare instances where the roles are switched, but this is "Quick and Dirty" grammar, not comprehensive grammar, and if you stick with the verb noun rule, you’ll be right about 95 percent of the time.

An Effective Memory Trick

For our purposes, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. Now we can get to the memory tricks. First, get this image in your mind: the raven flew down the avenue. Why? Because the letters a-v-e-n (in both raven and avenue) are the same first letters as "affect verb effect noun"!

Need another one? Because effect is usually a noun, that means you can usually put an article in front of it and the sentence will still make sense. Look at these examples:

The effect is eye-popping.

He kissed her for [the] effect.

In both of these cases effect is a noun and you can put the in front of it without making the sentence completely weird. The isn’t necessary in the second example, but it doesn’t ruin the sentence. On the other hand, look at these sentences where affect is a verb:

The eye-popping arrow [the] affects everyone that way.

The kiss [the] affected her.

You can’t insert the direct article, the, before affect in those sentences, which means you want to use the verb (affect), not the noun (effect). I remember this rule by remembering that the ends with e and effect starts with e, so the two e’s butt up against each other.

The effect was eye-popping.

Exception Alert

Affect can be used as a noun when you are talking about psychology. It means the mood that someone appears to have. For example, a doctor may say, "The patient displayed a happy affect." Psychologists find the word useful because they can never really know what someone else is feeling. Technically, they can only know how someone appears to be feeling.

Effect can be used as a verb that essentially means "to bring about," or "to accomplish." For example, you could say, "Aardvark hoped to effect change within the burrow."



I often have to tell people their pet peeves aren’t actually hard-and-fast grammar rules. I have to tell people it’s OK to split infinitives, and in some cases it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition.

I know it’s upsetting to find out your nearest and dearest beliefs are wrong because I have my own mistaken pet peeve: it bugs me no end when people use while to mean although, but however hard I looked, I couldn’t convince myself I was right. The horror!

You see, I believe although means "in spite of the fact that," as in Although the tree was tall, Squiggly and Aardvark thought they could make it to the top. Although is what’s called a concessive conjunction, meaning that it is used to express a concession. On the other hand, I believe that while should be reserved to mean "at the same time," as in While Squiggly gathered wood, Aardvark hid the maracas.

At .rst I was sure I was right because Eric Partridge said in his book Usage and Abusage that "while for although is a perverted use of the correct sense of while, which properly means ‘at the same time.’ "


But then I discovered that Fowler’s Modern English Usage states it is normal and acceptable to use while to mean "although." Fowler even called Partridge’s comment "indefensible." It’s a grammar rumble, people.

I decided to go over their heads and see what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say, and it backs up Fowler with an entry stating that while can mean "although." Two additional dictionaries concurred. I was thwarted, but I’d given it a good shot.

One reason I’m telling you this story is that I want you to know that I go to this much trouble to validate all of your pet peeves too, but sometimes it isn’t possible.

My only small vindication is that there are sentences where it is confusing to use while to mean "although," and then it isn’t allowed. For example, if you said, "While Squiggly is yellow, Aardvark is blue," people wouldn’t know whether you were contrasting their colors or saying that Aardvark is only blue when Squiggly is yellow. In cases like that, you have to use although.

So, moving forward, I will continue to reserve while for times when I mean "at the same time"—old habits are hard to break—but I will now refrain from striking out while every chance I get. I wonder if the Modern Manners Guy will want me to send apology cards to all the writers I terrorized about this over the years. I hope not!

Next, I have two related bonus facts for you.

First, there isn’t any difference between although and though when they are being used as described above. Though is a less formal version of although, but it’s in such common use that it’s OK to use it in formal writing too.

Second, while and whilst both mean the same thing. Although whilst is still used in British English, it is considered archaic in American English. It’s just a language quirk that whilst survived in Britain but perished in America.




Assure, ensure, and insure have the same underlying meaning, but they each have a slightly different use.

Assure is the only one of the three words that means

"to reassure someone or to promise."

I assure you that the chocolate is fresh.

Ensure chiefly means "to make certain or to guarantee."

He must ensure that the effect is eye-popping.

Insure can be interchangeable with ensure in some

cases, but it is easiest to keep these words straight by

reserving insure for references to insurance.

I need to insure my car.

The definitions are different in British English: in Britain, assure can mean "to insure against a loss."



When backward and backwards are used to describe verbs, both words are correct and interchangeable.

The children moved backward/backwards.

Count backward/backwards from ten to one.

The s is more common in Britain than in the United States, so you should consider what the convention is in your country and use backwards in Britain and backward in the United States. This regional difference is one reason you’re probably confused. If you read The New York Times and BBC websites in the same day, you could see the word used both ways.

The exception is that you never use the s when you use backward as an adjective (in other words, to describe a noun). It is always backward as an adjective.

They couldn’t understand the peeves’ backward ways.

Aardvark wondered if the program had backward compatibility.

So if you are in the United States, you have it easier because you can just remember that it’s always backward, without the s, not backwards. We like shortcuts here, like drive-through restaurants, so you can remember that we’ve lopped off the s. But, if you are using British English, then you have to remember that it’s backwards as an adverb and backward as an adjective.

The story is similar for the words toward and towards: both are correct and interchangeable, and you can use either one because they mean the same thing. The s is more common in Britain than in the United States, so you should take into account what the convention is in your country and use towards in Britain and toward in the United States. Again, a memory trick can be to remember that Americans like shortcuts.


Interviewers often ask if people are afraid to write to me, and the answer, sadly, is yes. I get a lot of e-mail messages in which people (even my mother!) include blanket requests for forgiveness for any unidentified grammar errors. I feel bad about that—my goal isn’t to make people self-conscious or afraid.

In addition, I get skewered when I make an error (or perceived error) myself. So when I was quoted in an article saying, "I feel bad about that," a lot of readers saw a chance to send me a gotcha e-mail message about using bad to modify feel. They maintained that I should have said, "I feel badly about that." I’m not perfect, and I make lots of errors (especially in live interviews), but this isn’t one of them.

The quick and dirty tip is that it is correct to say you feel bad when you are expressing an emotion. To say "I feel badly" could imply that there’s something wrong with your sense of touch. Every time I hear people say, "I feel badly," I imagine them in a dark room having trouble feeling their way around with numb fingers.

I get that image because badly is an adverb, meaning that it modifies a verb (adverbs sometimes modify adjectives and other adverbs too). So when you say, "I feel badly," the adverb badly relates to the action verb feel. Since the action verb feel can mean "to touch things," feeling badly can mean you’re having trouble touching things.

This is a problem with most of the verbs that describe senses such as taste and smell. Consider the different meanings of these two sentences:

I smell bad.

I smell badly.

When you say, "I smell badly," badly is an adverb that modifies the verb smell. You’re saying your sniffer isn’t working, just as when you say you feel badly you’re saying your fingers aren’t working. When you say, "I smell bad," bad is an adjective, which means it modifies a noun. You’re saying you stink, just as when you say, "I feel bad," you’re saying you are regretful or sad or ill or wicked.

The reason people often think they should say they feel badly is that it’s only after linking verbs such as feel, smell, and am that you use an adjective such as bad. With most other verbs, it’s correct to use the adverb. For example, if you gave a horrible speech, you could say, "It went badly." If a child threw a .t in a shopping mall, it would be correct to say, "She behaved badly." The quick and dirty tip is to remember the following:

Adjectives follow linking verbs.

Adverbs modify action verbs.

See pages 31 and 144 for further discussion about linking verbs.



There is a difference between between and among: you use between when you are writing about two things and among when you are writing about more than two things. That’s a quick and dirty tip, and there are exceptions, but if you remember that between is for two things and among is for more than two things, then you’ll be right most of the time. I’m expecting to hear a collective groan about the corny mnemonic that I’m going to give you, but I do think it will help you remember when to use the word between. Here’s the sentence: Squiggly dreaded choosing between the bees and the tweens. The idea is that Squiggly is choosing between two different groups—bees and tweens—and the correct word is between.

Here’s a bonus: the difference between among and amongst is similar to the difference between while and whilst. Amongst is more common in British English and is considered old-fashioned or archaic in American English.

I know some of you will be wondering about the exception to that rule. Here’s the deal: you can use the word between when you are talking about distinct, individual items even if there are more than two of them. For example, you would say, "She chose between Harvard, Brown, and Yale," because the colleges are individual items she is choosing between. On the other hand, if you were talking about the colleges collectively you would say, "She chose among the Ivy League schools."


I received a comment about bring versus take that I found especially interesting from a man named Farrel, who is from an unspecified country. His impression is that everyone in his home country knows the difference between bring and take, and it’s just Americans who don’t seem to be able to get it right. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll take his word for it and try to do my part to .x the problem.

Whether you use bring or take depends on your point of reference for the action. The quick and dirty tip is that you ask people to bring things to the place you are, and you take things to the place you are going. For example, I would ask Aardvark to bring Squiggly to my party next week, and then Aardvark would call Squiggly and ask, "May I take you to Grammar Girl’s party?"

I am asking Aardvark to bring Squiggly because I am at the destination—from my perspective, Aardvark is bringing someone here. Aardvark is offering to take Squiggly because he is transporting Squiggly to a remote destination—from Aardvark’s perspective, he is taking someone there.

Here are two examples that help me remember.

First, think of a restaurant where you order food to go. It’s often informally called getting "takeout." When you get take-out food, you’re moving the food from your location (the restaurant) to somewhere else (a destination). And it’s take-out food, not bring-out food. You’re taking the food to a destination.

Second, if I’m sitting at home feeling lazy, wishing dinner would appear, I would say, "I wish someone would bring me dinner." I imagine Pat stopping at a restaurant and getting dinner to go. From my perspective, he is bringing me dinner because dinner is coming to my location.

I suspect that one reason people get confused about bring and take is that there are many exceptions to the basic rules. For example, idioms such as bring home the bacon and take a bath and phrasal verbs such as bring up, bring about, take down, and take after don’t comply with the rule that bring means to cause something to go to the speaker and take means to cause something to go away from the speaker.

Nevertheless, when your point is that something is being moved from one location to another, the rule is that things are brought to the speaker and taken away from the speaker. You ask people to bring things to you, and you take things to other people. You ask people to bring you coffee, and you offer to take the dishes to the kitchen. You tell people to bring you good news, and you take your camera to the beach.

As an aside, the past tense of bring is brought, as in He brought me dinner In some regions people say brung or brang, but those words aren’t standard English.

Finally, an interesting note is that the words come and go follow rules that are similar to those for bring and take. Come is like bring: you ask people to come here—to come to where you are. And go is like take: you tell people to go away—to move away from your location. Aardvark and Squiggly will come to my party, and when Aardvark calls Squiggly, he’ll say, "Let’s go to Grammar Girl’s party."




Some of the most difficult questions I get are from people who didn’t grow up speaking English and who want to know why we use a particular preposition in a specific phrase. Why do we say I’m in bed instead of I’m on bed? Do people suffer from a disease or suffer with a disease? Are we in a restaurant or at a restaurant? I’m a native English speaker, so my first thought is usually something like, "I don’t know why; in bed just sounds right," and sometimes either option seems correct.

But there’s one question I am able to answer—Why do some people say "on accident" and some people say "by accident"?—because I was lucky enough to find an entire research paper on the topic, published by Leslie Barratt, a professor of linguistics at Indiana State University.*

According to Barratt’s study, use of the two different versions appears to be distributed by age. Whereas on accident is common in people under thirty-five, almost no one over forty says on accident. Most older people say by accident. It’s quite amazing: the study says that on is more prevalent under age ten, both on and by are common between the ages of ten and thirty-.five, and by is overwhelmingly preferred by those over thirty-.five. (I’m over thirty-five, and I definitely prefer by accident.)

An interesting conclusion from the paper is that although there are some hypotheses, nobody really knows why younger people all over the United States started saying on accident instead of by accident. For example, there’s the idea that on accident is parallel to on purpose, but nobody has proven that children all across the country started speaking differently from their parents because they were seeking parallelism. Although I have no proof, I suspect that it must have something to do with nationwide media since it is such a widespread age-related phenomenon. Barney & Friends hasn’t been on TV long enough to be the culprit, and Sesame Street has been on TV too long to be the culprit. Really, all we can say is that it’s just one of those language things that happens sometimes.

Although on accident grates on the ears of many adults, Barratt found that there is no widespread stigma associated with saying on accident. So it seems to me that as the kids who say on accident grow up (some of whom are even unaware that by accident is an option, let alone the preferred phrase of grown-ups), on accident will become the main, accepted phrase. By that time, there won’t be enough of us left who say by accident to correct them!


Legions of exasperated teachers have responded, "May I go to the bathroom!" when children raise their hands and ask, "Can I go to the bathroom?" Technically, can is used to ask if something is possible, and may is used to ask if something is permissible. So yes, those kids can go to the bathroom (we hope!); what they need is to know if they have their teachers’ permission to proceed—if they may go to the bathroom. Nevertheless, substituting can for may is done so commonly it can hardly be considered wrong. This is what I call a cover letter grammar topic—use may when you are in formal situations or want to be especially proper, but don’t get too hung up about it in everyday life.


When the noun capitol ends with an -ol, it is referring to state capitol buildings or the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. You can remember that the rotunda of the Capitol building is round like the letter o.

The other kind of capital, with an -al at the end, refers to uppercase letters, wealth, or a city that is the seat of government for its region or is important in some way. Don’t get confused by the fact that capital with an -al is used for a capital city and capitol with an -ol is used for a state’s capitol building. Just remember that capitol with an -ol refers only to buildings, and .x in your mind that image of the round, o-like rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. (See page 138 for rules about capitalizing



Imagine the voice of a movie trailer announcer: "Two words. One pronunciation. In a world where choosing the right word can mean life or death, Squiggly must make a decision: i or e."

OK. You can stop imagining the corny voice now. Fortunately for Squiggly, I have a great memory trick for remembering the difference between compliment and complement. A compliment (with an i) is a word of praise, so just remember the sentence

I like to give compliments.

Complement (with an e) means that something pairs well with something else. You can remember the meaning by thinking things that complement each other often complete each other, and complement and complete both have e’s in them.

Things that complement each other often complete each other.



If you write that a crossword puzzle is deceptively easy, does that mean it is easy or hard? The answer is that using the word deceptively can lead to confusion, and the best approach is to rewrite the sentence.

There’s a similar story for the word inflammable. Some people think it means "easy to burn" and other people think it means "resistant to burning." It’s best to avoid it altogether.



Different from is preferred to different than. I remember this by remembering that different has two f’s and only one t, so the best choice between than and from is the one that starts with an f.

Squiggly knew he was different from the other snails.



Misusing i.e. and e.g. is one of the top five mistakes I used to see when editing technical documents. People are so mixed up (and so certain in their confusion) that I would get back drafts from clients where they had actually crossed out the right abbreviation and replaced it with

the wrong one. I had to just laugh.

I.e. and e.g. are both abbreviations for Latin terms. I.e. stands for id est and means "that is." E.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means roughly "for example." "Great. Latin," you’re probably thinking. "How am I supposed to remember that?"

But by now, I’m sure you know that I’m not going to ask you to remember Latin. I’m going to give you a memory trick! So here’s how I remember the difference. Forget about i.e. standing for "that is." From now on, to you, i.e., which starts with i, means "in other words," and e.g., which starts with e, means "for example."

Starts with i_in other words

Starts with e_example

A few listeners have also written in to say they remember the difference between i.e. and e.g. by imagining that i.e. means "in essence," and noting that e.g. sounds like "egg," as in "egg-sample," and those are good memory tricks too.

So now that you have a few tricks for remembering what the abbreviations mean, let’s think about how to use them in a sentence.

E.g. means "for example," so you use it to introduce an example:

Aardvark likes card games, e.g., bridge and crazy eights.

Squiggly visited Ivy League colleges, e.g., Harvard and Yale.

Because I used e.g., you know I have provided a list of examples of card games that Aardvark likes and colleges Squiggly visited. It’s not a definitive list of all card games Aardvark likes or colleges Squiggly visited; it’s just a few examples.

On the other hand, i.e. means "in other words," so you use it to introduce a further clarification:

Aardvark likes to play cards, i.e., bridge and crazy Eight.

Squiggly visited Ivy League colleges, i.e., Harvard and Yale.

Because I used i.e., which introduces a clarification, you know that these are the only two card games Aardvark enjoys and the only two colleges Squiggly visited.

Here are two more examples:

Squiggly loves watching old cartoons (e.g., DuckTales and Tugboat Mickey). The words following e.g. are examples, so you know that they are just some of the old cartoons Squiggly enjoys.

Squiggly loves watching Donald Duck’s nephews (i.e., Huey, Dewey, and Louie). The words following i.e. provide clarification: they tell you the names of Donald Duck’s three nephews.

An important point is that if I’ve failed, and you’re still confused about when to use each abbreviation, you can always just write out the words "for example" or "in other words." There’s no rule that says you have to use the abbreviations.

Here are a few other things about i.e. and e.g. Don’t italicize them; even though they are abbreviations for Latin words, they’ve been used for so long that they’re considered a standard part of the English language. (I.e. and e.g. are italicized in this section because I use italics to highlight words that are being discussed as words instead of being used for their meaning.) Also, remember that they are abbreviations, and there is always a period after each letter.

Also, I always put a comma after i.e. and e.g. I’ve noticed that my spell checker always freaks out and wants me to remove the comma, but five out of six style guides recommend using the comma.

Finally, I tend to reserve i.e. and e.g. to introduce parenthetical statements, but it’s also perfectly fine to use i.e. and e.g. in other ways. You can put a comma before them, or if you use them to introduce a main clause that follows another main clause, you can put a semicolon before them. You can even put an em dash before i.e. and e.g. if you are using them to introduce something dramatic. They’re just abbreviations for words, so you can use them in any way you’d use the words in essence or for example.



Each and every mean the same thing and are considered singular nouns, so they take singular verbs. (Note the singular verbs in the following examples.) If you want to get technical, you can use each to emphasize the individual items or people:

Each car is handled with care.

and every to emphasize the larger group:

Every car should use hybrid technology.

People often say "each and every" for emphasis, but it is redundant.



Everyone and everybody mean the same thing: every person. You can use them interchangeably and they are considered singular.

Everyone loves Squiggly.

Everybody is coming over after the parade.



The quick and dirty tip here is that you use farther to talk about physical distance and further to talk about metaphorical or figurative distance. It’s easy to remember because farther has the word far in it, and far obviously relates to physical distance.

For example, you might say, "Squiggly and Aardvark walked to a town far, far away. After many miles, Squiggly grew tired. ‘How much farther?’ he asked in despair."

Did you see that? Squiggly used farther because he was asking about physical distance.

If Aardvark were frustrated with Squiggly, he might say, "Squiggly, I’m tired of your complaining; further, I’m tired of carrying your maracas." In this case, Aardvark used further because he isn’t talking about physical distance, he’s talking about metaphorical distance: further along the list of irritations.

Sometimes the quick and dirty tip breaks down because it’s hard to decide whether you’re talking about physical distance or not. For example, take a look at this sentence: I’m further along in my book than you are in yours. You could think of it as a physical distance through the pages and use farther or as a figurative distance through the story and use further.

The good news is that in these ambiguous cases it doesn’t matter which word you choose. It’s fine to use further and farther interchangeably when the distinction isn’t clear. People have been using them interchangeably for hundreds of years!

Just remember that farther has a tie to physical distance and can’t be used to mean "moreover" or "in addition." When I mean "in addition," I always use furthermore instead of further. Because furthermore and farther are more different from each other than further and farther, I never get confused.

Aardvark’s feet hurt. Furthermore, Squiggly’s

complaining was driving him batty.

He reminded Squiggly they didn’t have much farther to go.

An interesting side note is that in Britain people use the word farther much less than people do in the United States. At least one source speculates that this is because with British pronunciation, farther sounds too much like father.



Regardless of your political beliefs, I believe everyone can agree that this has been an amazing year for women in politics. First, Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House, and then Hillary Clinton became the first woman to have a good chance of becoming president of the United States.

Because of these events, writers have spilled a lot of ink on stories about female advances, which means I have received a lot of messages asking about correct use of female and woman.

Before I answer the usage question, I want to address a related issue, which is that some people may argue that it’s sexist to point out these women’s sex. They say that such language implies that it’s unexpected that the Speaker would be a woman, in the way that saying someone is a male nurse or a female doctor wrongly implies that men aren’t usually nurses or that women aren’t usually doctors. But, given that Nancy Pelosi is, for example, actually the first woman to ever be Speaker of the House, I don’t believe it’s sexist to point out that she is a woman because that fact is an exciting and unique part of the story.

So then, what is the best way to talk about Nancy Pelosi being a woman? The word woman is primarily a noun, but it is also less commonly used as an adjective (which means in some cases it can be used to modify nouns).

A quick and dirty tip for testing the validity of using woman as an adjective in a particular sentence is to substitute the word man to see if it makes sense. For example, it sounds ridiculous to say someone is "the first man Speaker of the House." Of course, you would say "male Speaker of the House." So, even though it’s not strictly wrong to use woman as an adjective, it’s better to use the primary adjective, female, and say that Nancy Pelosi is the first female Speaker of the House.



Less and fewer are easy to mix up. They mean the same thing—the opposite of more—but you use them in different circumstances. The quick and dirty tip is that you use less with mass nouns and fewer with count nouns.

Count Nouns Versus Mass Nouns

I’m worried that I’ve scared you off, but it’s easy to remember the difference between mass nouns and count nouns.

A count noun is just something you can count. I’m looking at my desk and I see books, pens, and M&M’s. I can count all those things, so they are count nouns and the right word to use is fewer. I should eat fewer M&M’s.

Mass nouns are just things that you can’t count individually. Again, on my desk I see tape and clutter. Those things can’t be counted individually, so the right word to use is less. If I had less clutter, my desk would be cleaner. Another clue is that you don’t make mass nouns plural: I would never say I have clutters on my desk or that I need more tapes to hold my book covers together.

Sometimes it isn’t obvious if something is a mass noun or a count noun because some words can be used in different ways. For example, coffee can refer to either a mass of liquid or a cup of liquid. If you’re responsible for filling the coffee decanter at a wedding, and you’re getting carried away, your boss may ask you to make less coffee. But if you’re a waiter serving cups of coffee to the tables, and the crowd is waning, your boss may tell you to take out fewer coffees next time. She means cups of coffee, but it’s common to hear that shortened to just coffee as in Bring me a coffee, please. Remember that I said mass nouns (such as coffee) can’t be made plural? In this example, I’ve made a mass noun plural (coffees), but in the process I transformed it into a count noun. So the rule still holds.

Furniture is another tricky word; it isn’t immediately obvious whether it is a mass noun or a count noun. If I think of a furniture store, I think of lots of individual pieces of furniture, but furniture is a collective name for a mass of stuff. You could say, "Look at all those chairs," but you would never say, "Look at all those furnitures." Furniture is a mass noun, and chair is a count noun. Therefore, you’d say, "We need less furniture in this dance hall. Can we have fewer chairs?"


There are exceptions to these rules; for example, even though we count hours, dollars, and miles, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance (perhaps because these things can be divided into infinitely small units). For example, you could say, "That wedding reception lasted less than two hours. I hope they paid the band less than four hundred dollars." So keep in mind that time, money, and distance are different, but if you stick with the quick and dirty tip that less is for mass nouns and fewer is for count nouns, you’ll be right most of the time.

Excerpted from Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty

Copyright @ 2008 by Mignon Fogarty, Inc

Published in 2008 by Publisher H.B. Fenn and Compnay Ltd

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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