September 15, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: go, go and, or go to, & less/fewer and percentages

Posted in fewer/less, go/go and/go to at 6:26 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: ‘go (verb),’ ‘go and (verb),’ or ‘go to (verb)’

A reader writes:

Which is/are correct: go (verb), go and (verb), and go to (verb)? Is there a difference in American vs. British correctness (this could be the source of our confusion at home, as we are starting  to become more Americanized)? Your answer will help promote marital harmony in our household!

First, lets put in some verbs and other words so the question is easier to follow. The reader is asking about these three forms of using the verb, to go.

After work, I will go find the produce market to buy some asparagus.

After work, I will go and find the produce market to buy some asparagus.

After work, I will go to find the produce market to buy some asparagus.

Grammatically, all three are correct; however, the ways (and settings) in which they are used are different.

The first form, ‘go (verb),’ is standard and is what we should use in any formal writing.

The second form, ‘go and (verb),’ is casual and should be reserved for everyday writing and conversing.

The third form, ‘go to (verb),’ to my ear, is awkward and a bit stodgy. I don’t think I would use it at all.

As to which is British and which is American, I consulted my favorite UK language expert, and I just heard back from him. He said this:

“In the UK,  all three are used, but the first feels most American. The middle is how folks talk, and the third is how an English teacher would prefer to see the sentence, especially in preference to the second.’’

Hmm, let’s see, we are pretty much in agreement: ‘go (verb)’ is American standard (agreed); ‘go and (verb)’ is casual and how folks talk everyday (agreed), and ‘go to (verb)’ is the preference of a stodgy English teacher in the UK (well,…).

I hope this will, at least, be of some help in preserving the marital accord—you are both right.

Tip 2: Less or fewer with percentages

A reader writes:

I am sure that you have covered this in WLUT AND that you would have changed it in the grant proposal if it had been incorrect, but “less” with percentages sounds wrong to me.  I did a quick search and found this by Safire (http://www.nytimes.com/1988/03/27/magazine/on-language-fewer-bursts-less-bursting.html) – although from my quick read there appears to be a lack of consensus even among some respected sources.

Why isn’t it “fewer than 4% of respondents were African American”?

We’ve talked about this before but not specifically with respect to percentages (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/fewerless/), so I am happy to give it another go. First, a brief recap is in order.

We use ‘fewer’ with count nouns (nouns representing something that can be counted—e.g., books, drums) and ‘less’ with mass nouns (nouns that represent something that cannot be counted—e.g., money, work). The exceptions come when you are talking about time, distance, or amount. When you are talking about time, distance, or amount, ‘less’ is the preferred word.

When I wrote about this before, I was trying to keep it simple and instead, of ‘amount,’ I wrote ‘money,’ but I think that was an oversimplification, because we can include ‘percentage’ in the ‘amount’ category.

If the referent is ‘percent’ (which can be successfully argued), then we would say:

Less than four percent of respondents were African American.

[NOTE: I spelled out four percent because the words really ought to be spelled out, but we do lots of things to save an inch of space in a grant proposal, and these things are forgiven in our world.]

On the other hand, you could successfully argue that the referent is ‘respondents’ (a count noun) that calls for ‘fewer.’

Fewer than four percent of respondents were African American.

Of course, you might say that ‘percent’ is a count noun and calls for ‘fewer,’ but others would say that because there are so many numbers that add up to one hundred, it should be considered a mass noun, and ‘less’ should be used.

I think this is why there is so little  agreement about using ‘fewer’ or ‘less.’

The bottom line is this:

Any obvious distinction between the two words has been eroding for a long time, and, the erosion, I believe, is destined to continue. And while I was taught in my youth to honor the distinction (and it is hard to give up what you learned as a child), I am ready to throw in the towel on this one—at least when it comes to percentages.

So writer’s choice. Enjoy.

2 Comments »

  1. ObsessiveTruthSeeker said,

    Is it “lets put” or “let’s put”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      let’s put is correct.


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