Like or Such As?

The difference between “like” and “such as” is subtle, and they are often used interchangeably in informal English. But if you are writing technical material, such as a résumé of a set of complicated instructions, it pays to use the correct expression.

“Like” means “similar to, but not exact.”

“Such as” means “here’s an actual example.”

If you want to give your readers a general idea from which they can derive a pattern, use “like.” For example, you could write “…vehicular transportation like a dune buggy. Something that can handle rough terrain.”

But if you need to refer to something specific, use “such as.” So you might write  “…you need a real truck, such as a Chevy S-10.” (An S-10 is a real truck, right?)

Don’t say “I write explanations like step-by-step instructions.” Do you write instructions or don’t you? If you do, use “such as.” With a comma after the “as.”

No comic for this one. Harrumpf.

Bad Apostrophe, Good Apostrophe

I was going to post this Mallard Fillmore comic just because the comic funny and about grammar, but it reminded me of a rule: Don’t use apostrophes for plurals.

But there are two exceptions that you might get away with: plurals of numerals and plurals of abbreviations. You don’t need to write plurals of numerals very often, but when you do, it’s okay, but not necessary, to use an apostrophe, and the tendency these days is to use the apostrophe less and less.

So, for example, referring to a decade,  write “the 1960s.” If you really want to, you can write 1960’s and you’ll get away with it. Buying house numbers? The neighbor of the Beast bought two 6s and an 8. Or is it two 6’s and an 8?

Moving on to abbreviations; the rule is do what is easier to understand. Walking into the vacant space, she said, “Wow! This office has enough room for three AAAs.” Or three old-fashioned AAA’s.

Usually I leave off the apostrophe, and no one has fired me for it yet.

 

Counting or Measuring?

We use “few” for counting, which is a number, and “less” for measuring, which refers to amounts. But you have room for ambiguity sometimes—referring to time, for instance, and distances. Depending on what you’re saying, either way can work.

Here, is Mr. Tinkerson counting the number of sheets or measuring the amount of paper?

Either way makes sense. Same thing when you’re referring to time. Yes, we count the hours, but it took less than three hours to give blood Saturday. Since time is continuous, you can measure it as well as count the units. Same thing for distance.

So be careful, and think about whether you’re measuring or counting.

An Opinion Piece

Two of my rules about good writing are to be clear and correct, the latter partly meaning to follow the rules of grammar and spelling. We call these rules the mechanics. I even proofread my emails and seldom abbreviate even my grocery lists (ahem, whenever I write one).

I even have a sixth rule, to write for your readership, and here I must depart a bit from correctness. There’s a place for variation in writing style. On the one extreme, we have passages like the Olive Leaf Petition I mentioned two posts ago, addressed to King George III, and on the other extreme, well, I’ll let this 9 to 5 comic speak for itself, and for me:

Sigh, I hate to say it, but he has a point.

Maybe He Should Read More

Sometimes we get idiomatic expressions wrong, especially if you don’t read much. These types of mistakes are mainly mondegreens, language that’s misheard, but plenty clear when you read it. I already wrote about this; here’s the link. And here’s today’s example of egregious English, from a strip named Daddy’s Home:

PS—Since I mentioned mondegreens, here’s a completely unrelated comic with a mondegreen that’s new to me. Look at the name of the cheese store. Argyle Sweater. (Check the comments, too.)

 

We Don’t Do Tech Writing Like This Any More

Here’s a sentence from some correspondence from the 1700’s:

Your Majesty’s Ministers, persevering in their measures, and proceeding to open hostilities for enforcing them, have compelled us to arm in our own defence, and have engaged us in a controversy so peculiarly abhorrent to the affections of your still faithful Colonists, that when we consider whom we must oppose in this contest, and if it continues, what may be the consequences, our own particular misfortunes are accounted by us only as parts of our distress.

It’s from a document called “The Olive Branch Petition,” addressed to King George III (but delivered to the Earl of Dartmouth) not long before the revolutionary war, written by Richard Penn and Arthur Lee, representing the Continental Congress. The king wouldn’t even read it, but not because of the complexity of the sentence, I suspect.

Here’s an exercise for you: Rewrite that sentence in today’s English. You can make more than one sentence out of it, and I recommend you do.

Adjectives Don’t Show Number in English

In a lot of languages, when you put an adjective with a noun, the adjective has to agree with the noun. Feminine nouns get feminine endings on their adjectives (gender), plural nouns get plural adjectives (number), and so on. If you know other languages, you know what I mean by the “and so on,” such as the effect of case.

English (with a few exceptions, such as court martial, poet laureate, secretary general) puts the adjective right in front of its noun, and it doesn’t matter much what kind of noun. Here’s an example of getting it wrong:

The New York Times (and others) reported on Plimpton 322, a famous four-millennia-old Babylonian tablet featuring a table of Pythagorean triples.

You might argue that it’s a compound adjective (hyphenated correctly, by the way), but it should still be “millennium.” The whole thing is an adjective, so it shouldn’t show number. An example of correctness:

He drives a four-door car and a sixteen-wheel truck.

That incorrect usage, by the way, is from an interesting and well-written site called Math with Bad Drawings. Even if you’re not much on math, give it a look. The bad drawings are actually pretty good, even. Here’s one:

If you’re a native English-speaker, you probably do this without thinking; this post is so you’re aware of what you’re doing already, and so you don’t stumble.

 

Two Pretty-Much Useless Words

The words are “within” and “upon.” Both are fancy versions of what they actually mean, namely “in” and “on.” For example:

This line of code can be found within that module.

Instead, how about:

This line of code can be found in that module.

We’ll skip my usual rant about using the passive; isn’t that second example better? It’s more direct, doesn’t call attention to itself.

Okay, it’s been several posts since I posted a comic, so here’s one to illustrate “upon.” My sincere thanks to Zach Weinersmith for his Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, (for Sept 13, 2017. You’ll have to click back to that date if you’re visiting from some day after the 13th.). It’s one of my favorite comics. They are intellectually sophisticated and funny.

The usage is in the first panel. I admit, in this context, “upon” is probably appropriate, but I think that makes the point. Are you writing an explanation for something, or are you quoting a goat skull?

So here’s the rule:

If “in” or “on” make sense, don’t use “within” or “upon.”

 

Test Answers 4

Last chance to go take the test without seeing the answers!

The last five questions:

  1. It was about 3 or 4 feet long, looked like a long piece of linguine (same color, similar width), except if you looked a little carefully, it was actually comprised of connected rhomboid like sections. [this one has two goofs, not counting that the 3 and 4 should be spelled out. Find both.]
  2. While China is beginning to assemble its own tunnel-boring machines, it still relies on critical, foreign-made components that its own industries can’t manufacture on its own. [first word should be “Although” or “Whereas,” but I’m looking for a different goof.]
  3. Clicking Refresh Catalog in the catalog, updates the usage information.
  4. The amount of tabs you have open at any one time has a direct impact on the performance of Chrome, as well as how much RAM the application consumes.
  5. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with.

The answers:

  1. Using numerals for numbers below ten is normally a faux pas in writing, but that’s not the goof I’m thinking about. They said “comprised of”! It’s “composed of” or even “comprising connected …” For shame! Talk about being pretentious, that’s it! The other goof is a missing hyphen. It should be “rhomboid-like sections.”
  2. This one is easy. “industries” is plural, “its” is singular. Make them agree: Use either “industry…its own,” or “industries…their own.”
  3. Get rid of the comma. Never separate a subject and verb with one comma. I recommend you make “Refresh Catalog” stand out, too, with a style, quotes, italic, or bold.
  4. AAK! They should have “The number of tabs” because you’re counting, not measuring.
  5. The sentence has an extra “with” at the end. Get rid of it. In other words, proofread your work. You got that one, didn’t you?

So there you have it. If you teach English know some writers, or just want to annoy your friends, you have permission to print the quiz and hand it out. Then tell them the answers, of course.

Test Answers 3

Remember, the original test is here. go take it if you haven’t already. What’s the fun of free answers?

  1. So, the Rangers are based out of Igloolik.
  2. So what does a potential new state of matter for the rest of us?
  3.  Indiana law explicitly forbids government employees such as the Governor to conduct politics on state accounts, so it’s credible to argue Pence had no other options.
  4. “The Church and State owes them all an apology,” she said.
  5. It stands in stark contrast with a pair of current cartoons by fairly mainstream conservative cartoonists that mock Democrats for being obsessed with the Russian connections.

And the answers:

  1. They are based in that place. Even based at works, but not out of! Maybe they venture out of Igloolik occasionally…
  2. Okay, I usually don’t bother with simple carelessness, but these are professionals! What does a potential new state of matter mean for the rest of us?
  3. The reference to the governor is an aside (aka non-restrictive) so it should have commas before and after it. “…employees, such as the governor, to conduct…” but that’s not the main goof! Do you forbid someone to do something, or forbid them from doing it? You could also throw a “that” in front of Pence.
  4. Ah, good old subject-verb agreement. You should all have gotten this one. “Church and state” is a plural, so you want the plural verb, “owe.”
  5. Cartoonists are people, people. So it’s cartoonists who mock Democrats. “Who” is for people, “that” is for non-people.