There are a few things that annoy me about some writers and, in particular, many journalists. These are same things that annoy me about the anonymous writers of marketing materials and signs. These same things annoy me even more when they come from the pen/keyboards of those who are trying to educate us.
But, one of those things that annoy me most is the incorrect use of words. Even more does it annoy me when the culprit resorts to using a word that they think will make them seem educated when it actually demonstrates the opposite.
The Which/That Argument
Take, for example, the use of the word “which” to introduce a restrictive clause.
For those who don’t know, a “restrictive clause is one that qualifies the subject of the previous clause and is absolutely essential to convert the correct information. Let us use an example:
In a piece of writing, you want to describe a walk down a particular road. Of of all the roads available, you walked down the road with fresh tarmac. So the main clause might be
I walked down the road.
The sub clause might be:
had fresh tarmac.
This sub clause is essential to the description, otherwise the reader might think you walked down one of the other roads. The correct linking word would be “that” because it is a restrictive clause. The whole sentence becomes:
I walked down the road that had fresh tarmac.
We are in no doubt about which road you walked down.
However, if there was only one possible road so that we can be in no doubt, then it is a non-restrictive clause. This means that the subordinate clause adds further information and is not essential to the context of the story. In which case, the correct word is “which” so the sentence becomes:
I walked down the road, which had fresh tarmac.
See? The sub-clause can be removed and the story still makes sense.
So the general rule is, if the sub clause can be removed without detracting from the details, then we use “which” and it is always preceded by a comma. If it is absolutely essential and cannot be removed then the word is “that” and there is no comma.
Unfortunately many people who should know better use the wrong word, generally thinking that “which” sounds more educated. It doesn’t. The words do not mean the same thing and are not interchangeable.
I have always loved this word. I don’t know why but I do. So do many other people. The difference between me and most of the other people that love the word is that I know how to use it, most do not. (notice I used that rather than which)
Now, I can easily forgive the layman for the incorrect use of this word. However, journalists and (especially) estate agents who bastardise this wonderful word should be taken out and shot. And when it used incorrectly on the web-pages of a university English department then someone should be hung-drawn-and-quartered!
Let me explain: Comprise means consist-of, contain, made-up-of, consist-of. So the correct usage would be, for example:
the ground floor comprises two reception rooms and a kitchen-diner.
See. It should never be “comprises of.” Even just writing it as an example makes me feel like vomiting.
I spend a lot of time looking at estate agents websites. Almost without exception they will use “comprises of” in their descriptions.
I have seen the incorrect use of this word in magazine articles, newspapers, and marketing material. I have heard news readers use it and MPs. I have even seen this bastardisation on the websites of university English departments – yes, more than one but I won’t say which.
This is the perfect example of a word people use because they think it sounds educated but they have no idea what it actually means.
Less Than and Fewer Than
How many times have you seen a sign over a supermarket checkout that says:
10 items or less?
(notice I used “that” and not “which”)
I have only ever seen one supermarket get this right and yet it is an official sign that is part of their overall marketing strategies.
You may be forgiven for asking what is wrong with it, unless you are a sign-writer or journalist, in which case you should be shot immediately. The correct form should is:
10 items or fewer.
Why? Quite simply because “item” is a digital term and “less” is an analogue term. An explanation?
Analogue quantities are infinitely variable like time, weight, distance. Digital quantities can be counted by number such as balls, cups, books, items.
So, I may be able to work fewer hours but I will have less time to complete the tasks.
So, you now have my permission to take a permanent marker to the supermarket and cross out the word “less” on these signs, replacing it with “fewer.” Tell them a grammar-nazi told you that you could.