I was delighted recently to see a former colleague sounding off on a social networking site about the incorrect use of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ – one of the more common errors of modern English. It’s always encouraging to see that other people do still care about the misuse of our language and appreciate the importance of correctness.
Another popular confusion is ‘amount’ and ‘number’. The test in each of these cases is whether they qualify ‘count’ or ‘non-count’ nouns, so correct usage would be ‘less butter’ and ‘an amount of money’ versus ‘fewer people’ and ‘a number of things’. There’s also confusion whether something that sounds like a number but is actually an amount should be regarded as singular or plural. For example: 1,000 gallons of water were – or was? – used to fight a fire. ‘Were’ would be correct only if the firefighters had thrown 1,000 individual gallons at the flames.
It’s not pedantic to be concerned about these and the many other common mistakes of grammar and spelling because these two disciplines are the basic building blocks of our communication: and if we get the language right, we can communicate more effectively.
As professional communicators we have a duty to use language properly, especially in the messages we craft for our clients – because their words become part of their corporate image, and shoddy language creates a very poor impression. We also have a responsibility – sadly not always shared in the traditional media, and seldom in the new media – to uphold standards of language.
Strict adherence to the basic rules does not impede creativity, nor does it prevent language evolving. It simply makes it possible to move information efficiently from A to B – rather like driving on the designated side of the road.
David Goddin was born in the UK and educated in South Africa. He began his career on daily newspapers and trade journals, before moving into public relations consulting. He produced award-winning writing and became an Accredited PR Practitioner, the highest qualification of the Public Relations Institute of South Africa. Since his return to the UK 16 years ago he has also contributed to a number of highly successful PR and marketing communications campaigns for major national and multinational clients. He is currently also President of the Haslemere & District Chamber of Trade & Commerce.