Tag Archives: English language

My Older Sister is Elder now

Another bit of grammar for you and oooh, this one’s complex. We love a bit of complexity, don’t we?

While older (and oldest – the rules for that are the same. Phew) has replaced elder in almost every circumstance, our language wouldn’t be English without an exception.

When talking about siblings, use elder. “I have one elder brother”; “He has two elder sisters” etc,

It gets confusing when you have other relations AND siblings. For example, if I have two cousins (who are siblings of each other), I might say “I have two older cousins [older than me]; David is the elder [of the two].”

Got that?

Good, because we’re not done. You can’t just always use elder when talking about siblings. Sometimes older is still correct. For example:

“This is Jeffrey, he’s my elder brother [older than me]. I have an older brother [older than Jeffrey], Mike, but he’s not here today.”

“My elder sister [older than me, always was, always will be] is older now [older than she was before], but back in 1981, she was seventeen.”

I know. It’s confusing. If in doubt, use older – even if it’s wrong, the mistake is less likely to be noticed than misusing elder. Or study the extract from Fowler’s Dictionary below, and think yourself lucky that at least younger doesn’t have the same issue.




Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

One Fewer Thing To Worry About

We all know the difference between Less and Fewer now, right? It’s all about things versus stuff, as I explained here.




So what on earth is going on with the phrase, “One less thing to worry about”? And what about, “We’d gone less than 30 miles when we ran out of gas”?

Well, it seems to depend who you ask. “One less thing” is definitely right; NOBODY says “one fewer thing”, but it’s up to you whether you say that’s because it’s just weird English language idiom, or because even with THINGS, one isn’t really countable in the same ways as bigger numbers, so “one less” is OK for THINGS as well as stuff. (Anyway, one less is never going to be stuff, because by definition you can’t have one stuff).

As for distances, measures and so on, this is where my Maths lesson about discrete numbers and non-discrete numbers might have helped. I think of it this way:

“We went less than thirty miles” might mean 29 or 28 miles. Those things are countable, so I’d want FEWER than thirty of those THINGS we call miles. But realistically, it probably means 29.65234 miles, because miles aren’t discrete, so we’re really talking about distance, which is STUFF. “We went less far” would definitely be right.

The same with “He owes me less than thirty pounds.” Fewer would just sound weird, because it individuates the pounds, where the issue is really the STUFF that is money.

But explain it to yourself however you like, or just learn it as a rule, when you’re talking about measures, like money, weights and distances, less is sometimes more. Or fewer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

United We Is

On hold to United Airlines recently, I had plenty of chance to learn about the exciting benefits of flying with them. One in particular has prompted this post:

We are proud to be a member of the Star Alliance rewards program. As a member of the largest world’s largest rewards program, our customers benefit from…

We all learn pretty early on that the verbs we use have to “agree” with the subject (I am, for example, or as in the title of this piece, We are). But actually, “agreement” is more complicated than just verbs and subjects – the whole phrase should agree, and it’s the kind of mistake that is easy to miss when proof-reading and impossible to rely on spellcheckers for.

Take a look at that quote from United. I should admit it’s written here from memory, so might be slightly inaccurate, but the crucial parts are definitely verbatim. First sentence:

“We (pl) are (pl) proud to be a member (sing)”.

Purists would prefer “United (sing) is (sing) proud to be a member (sing)”, or at least “We (pl) are (pl) proud that United (sing) is a member (sing)”. But the version chosen is fine, because companies are weird things and get to be both singular and plural at once. There is only one membership (United’s), so it would be wrong to say “we are proud to be members” and if you’re going to put United in the first person, we sounds better than I.

As an aside, a few other words are like companies – Family, Team, Staff, for example. In all these cases, whether you go for the singular “The family welcomes you” or the plural “The staff are delighted” depends on whether you are really talking about the entity (in the example above, “the family”) or its individual components (the members of “the staff”) and it’s a big topic which I’m not going to get into here. Suffice to say “We (the individuals who make up United) are proud [that United is] a member” works.

It’s actually the second sentence which irked me:

As a member (sing) of the largest world’s largest rewards program, our customers (pl) benefit from…

That’s just wrong. The “as” part must agree with the rest of the sentence, and “our customers” is plural. We are now talking about the customers, and their memberships, not the membership of the company as a whole. Each customer has a membership, so we should have “As members (pl) of the … program, our customers benefit from…”. United isn’t the subject of this sentence, the customers are.

It’s far from simple, this agreement thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting it right. For a rule of thumb, a sentence should be either singular or plural. If it’s mixed it’s either wrong, or (like the first sentence above) could be rewritten without ill effect.

Of course, by the time I got through to someone at United, I wasn’t in the mood to discuss grammar, so let’s hope they read this blog. For a bit of light relief, check out another of United’s fans…


Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

It’s gets its comeuppance!

It seems my recent post, Converging to Diversity struck a chord with many of you, so I thought I’d come back with a few more on alternative Thursdays, replacing the submissions posts from last year.

I should preface this series of Grammatical Rants with a few riders. I make no promises that the rules I describe are “correct”, they are only what I was taught. Oftentimes, common usage has overridden the old rules, making them obsolete in certain spheres. In that, I am a dinosaur, and proud to be one. I do accept that a living language has to change with the times, I just feel that many of these changes make things more complicated, not less, or are the result of laziness, not sense. I usually blame the North Americans, but I’m aware that it isn’t always their fault, and if it is, then it’s still also the fault of Brits who follow them into the abyss.

Finally, I reserve the right to make mistakes in my own writing. No-one’s perfect, and I am certainly not the exception that proves that rule!

Its /It’s

Some people get very confused by the difference between Its (possessive pronoun, belonging to it) and It’s (contraction of it is). To me, they have never been a problem, because of the simple logic behind them, so let me share that with you.

The confusion seems to stem from the possessive nature of Its. We all know that the possessive uses an apostrophe – Ian’s book, the tree’s branches, the presents’ tags. So, think those who are confused, Its must have one too. And it doesn’t. And that’s confusing.

The it is version (It’s) must of course have an apostrophe, because it is a contraction, and contractions always have an apostrophe as a nod to the missing letters – here’s, don’t, etc.

Now I’ve set out the confusion, time to clear it up.

The contraction rule hasn’t got any exceptions apart from where a word has become so ingrained as to be a word itself, so there must be an apostrophe in the “it is” version.  If you like, you can simply remember that, and therefore work out by a process of elimination that the possessive pronoun version doesn’t have one.

Or, you can apply another English language rule (yes, really, a rule). Possessive nouns DO take an apostrophe, but possessive pronouns DON’T.

Look at them: My, Your, His / Her / Hers / Its, Our, Your, Their. Not an apostrophe in sight!

While we’re at it, this little rule should also help those who get into a knot with your versus you’re and their versus they’re.

1 Comment

Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

Converging to Diversity

The English language gets a bad rap. It’s hard to learn, the “rules” are inconsistent and frequently broken, it’s got so many irregular verbs that the regular verbs are living in a small enclave and battening down the hatches to avoid the onslaught, and that’s before we even get started on the idiom.

But there are rules. And the English language would be grateful if people didn’t wantonly break them! 😉

For example, when I was at school, we learnt a nice simple rule about Different and Similar. They are opposites, and so are the words you can pair with them: from and to. A is different from B and similar to C. Easy.

And yet, even the BBC has been saying “different to” for decades and now the North Americans have introduced “different than”. Than? Than?! It’s not even in the same spectrum as from and to!

Difference is diverging, hence you use from – things are separate FROM each other. Similarity is converging, hence the use of to – things are coming TOwards each other.

If I could enforce one grammar rule, it … actually, it wouldn’t be this one at all, but this one is easy, so it’s a decent place to start my rants about grammar rules. Just wait till I get onto the subject of “due to”!


Filed under British Expat in Canada, Writing