By Sarah Binning

Today’s Internet exploring resulted in an interesting find: “Weird Al” Yankovic giving YouTube grammar lessons!

Here’s one of my favorites:

15 Items of fewer, not less. Thank you Weird Al! So why is it fewer, as opposed to less?

As Grammar Girl points out, fewer and less mean the same thing—“the opposite of more.” So how do you know which one to use, if they mean the same thing? It all depends on the noun.

We use “fewer” when dealing with nouns that can be counted. Stars can be counted. So tonight we’d say there are fewer stars in the sky. Books can be counted. The Montpelier library has fewer books than the Boston Public Library. Similarly, the items in the grocery line can be counted, so thus, 15 items or fewer.

We use “less” with nouns that can’t be counted individually. Flour, is a mass noun. We consider the flour as a whole, singular unit … rather than individual grains. Therefore, the recipe should call for less flour, not fewer flour.

Other examples: The lecture was less than satisfactory. My life is less predictable now.

But it seems that for every rule, there must be an exception. In this case, the exception arises when you’re dealing with money, time and distance. One would assume that these are things that can be counted. Well, you know what they say about assuming. In these instances, it is customary to use “less.” The trick is to think of time, currency and distance as a unit … a singular unit that (because of its solidarity and wholeness) cannot be counted. Therefore we say: I paid less than full price. Or, I ran less than three miles. Or, we have less than a minute to make it home before curfew.

I’d like to take a minute to thank Weird Al and his dedication to correcting the world’s grammar. There’s nothing like a little celebrity endorsement to help spread enthusiasm for proper English.

Take a look at this other video:

Oh those “ly” adverbs and adjectives are tricky. How do you know when to add the “-ly” and when to leave it home? Here’s one general tip: Can the sentence be reshaped into a “How” question?

Caution! Drive slow/slowly becomes the how question “how should you drive?” If you can transform the sentence into a “how” question, then ADD the -LY. The Caution sign can be turned into a  how question. Thus, we should drive slowLY.

This fish smells bad/badly … how does the fish smell? The fish smells badly. (Added Later: The fish smells badly would mean that the fish has a poor sense of smell. However, as Vance and Grammar Girl remind me: you can also say “the fish smells bad.” This would mean that the fish is producing a foul odor.)

I sing poorly. I type quickly. I hum loudly. I whisper softly.

She is a bad dancer. This sentence doesn’t make sense if transformed into a “how question” so we do not add “-ly.” (Note: if you really, really, really wanted to use “badly” you could rephrase the sentence to say she dances badly. Isn’t grammar fun!)

And speaking of bad verse badly, Donald Trump could learn a thing or two about humility: Check out Grammar Girl correcting Donald Trump’s incorrect use of the word “badly” in her latest blog post.

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