By Tina Arnold, M.A.
Melinda, my former college roommate, came to visit last week. To celebrate, we spent a full day shopping, browsing and, truth be told, enjoying forbidden foods. We had pastries for breakfast, we ordered nachos for lunch, and we capped the afternoon with the ultimate treat: hot fudge sundaes. For eight hours, we blissfully ignored the healthful eating habits we’d worked so hard to develop after we graduated from college.
At the frozen yogurt counter, it was I who took the initiative. Without even looking at the menu, I ordered a hot fudge sundae with vanilla frozen yogurt and lots of nuts. Melinda hesitated ever so slightly, then followed my lead. “Make mine with chocolate yogurt, please,” she said. “And make mine with less nuts.”
Ah, Melinda. Why is it that so many business people (Melinda is a nurse in a trauma center) struggle with the word pair less/fewer (and, for that matter, the word pair amount/ number)? I didn’t want to spoil Melinda’s hot fudge sundae, nor did I want to be an off-duty grammar vigilante, so I just smiled conspiratorially as the two of us took delight in our decadent desserts.
As a person who instructs groups and individuals on ways to improve their professional communication skills, however, I can’t stress enough the importance of correct grammar. Poor grammar leads to skeptical customers, lost sales, and stalled careers. People notice poor grammar, and they instantly evaluate our professional abilities based on our use or misuse of grammar.
Unfortunately, many people find grammar intimidating. It needn’t be. The key is to focus on the areas of grammar and usage that really matter for professionals (e.g., pronouns, possessives, and puzzling word pairs). To be a polished professional, identify those grammatical pitfalls that typically plague business people, and learn to correct them.
Like the less/fewer and amount/number dilemmas, word pairs can be confusing and can wreak havoc with one’s professional image. When I review and edit writing samples from Fortune 1000 companies, I’m amazed at how frequently business people misuse the word pairs your/you’re, their/they’re, its/it’s, and to/too. These seemingly minor errors jump off the page and instantly diminish the writer’s credibility (and the credibility of the organization the writer represents).
So when do we use fewer and when do we use less? Here’s an easy guideline: When items are countable, use fewer (when they’re not, use less). Had we had the time and desire, we could have counted the nuts on Melinda’s hot fudge sundae; therefore, she should have asked for fewer nuts. Similarly, we would refer to fewer mistakes, fewer customers, and fewer application forms (all of which are countable). But we would refer to less space, less time, and less aggravation (these are not countable).
When do we use number and when do we use amount? Fortunately, the same guideline applies: When items are countable, use number (when they’re not, use amount). Therefore, we would refer to the number of mistakes, the number of customers, and the number of application forms. But we would refer to the amount of space, the amount of time, and the amount of aggravation.
So, to speak and write like a polished professional, remember: When things are countable, use fewer or number; when they’re not countable, use less or amount. To be more successful in business, learn to communicate like a polished professional. And, to make the learning process more fun, treat yourself to some frozen yogurt each time you learn a new grammar guideline!
Tina Arnold is president of Verbal Advance LLC, a training company dedicated to helping business people communicate clearly, confidently, and effectively.