Word Choice – Fewer Versus Less

BizWritingTip reader: “Are the words fewer and less interchangeable. I see them used often but seem to recall there is a rule about which one to use.”

BizWritingTip response: Less refers to things that cannot be counted. Fewer refers to things that can be counted. Another way to look at it is that less means “not as much”; fewer means “not as many.”

Examples (Correct — You could also say “not as many.”)

We can now do our work with fewer mistakes.
There were fewer cars on the road this morning.

Examples (Correct — You could also say “not as much.”)

It will take us less time to complete the project.
There is less dissatisfaction in the unit.

The expression less than precedes plural nouns referring to periods of time, amounts of money, and quantities.


He earns less than $50,000 a year.
Less than fifteen years ago, emails were not a business tool.
Less than two hundred people were in the audience.

1. There were less/fewer rejections on the line.
2. There were less/fewer people in the emergency room last night.
3. The meeting lasted less than/fewer than two hours.
4. Because less/fewer customization was required, they should pay less/fewer than they did last time.
5. Although they spent less/fewer days preparing for the presentation, they had less/fewer trouble with the equipment.

Answers?(1) fewer, (2) fewer, (3) less, (4) less and less, (5) fewer and less


Word Choice – Further Versus Farther

BizWritingTip reader: “I understand these words may now be interchangeable. Could you comment on whether this is true? I always understood that farther was used for literal references, for example, for geographic distance. The word further is used when the reference is figurative, for example, ‘I am further along in the process.’ Your thoughts would be welcome.”

BizWritingTip response: This question is quite interesting, Tim. My initial response was “of course, you are right.” Further is used for an abstract distance and indicates “to a greater degree” or “to a greater extent.”


I wish I was further along in writing the proposal.
What further proof do you need?

Farther refers to actual distance.


The new office location is farther from my home than I would like.
How much farther do we have to travel?

But, in doing an additional check with my dictionary and grammar books, I found that some reference books now consider these words interchangeable.

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary states that “farther” is a variant of “further.”

Frankly, I intend to stick with the traditional way of writing farther and further. However, if you can’t keep them straight, I don’t imagine many readers will call you on it.

Writing Style – Emails: Pet Peeves

I have found that most people have a love/hate relationship with emails. Here’s an opportunity to vent and to learn. I am conducting a survey of business people’s pet peeves when it comes to this form of communication.

My pet peeve is emails that lack phone numbers. Sometimes if a reply is lengthy or negative, I would rather answer it by phone. However, if there is no phone number, further electronic communication is the only option.

One workshop participant said he never included his phone number because people could always look it up in the company directory. This was the same person who also complained about the number of messages he received every day and questioned why people no longer used the phone.

Relying on people to look up phone numbers during a busy work day is naïve. In addition, if you are accessing your emails from a BlackBerry or other external source, the company directory may not be available.

Please do me, your colleagues and your clients a favour. Add your phone number to your signature box. If you don’t use a signature box, at least include your number after your name.

Don’t consign the readers of your messages to a never-ending email spiral.

Alright, you have heard my pet peeve – let’s hear yours.

Word Choice – Orient Versus Orientate

A BizWritingTip reader: “Could you comment on the use of ‘orient’ and ‘orientate’? I have always used orient and it drives me nuts to hear orientate, verbal and written.”

BizWritingTip response: This is the third question I have received on these words this week. There must be a lot of orientation in the workforce right now.

The two verbs, orient and orientate, both come from the same French word orienter meaning “to place facing the east,” and they both now mean “to familiarize with or to adjust to new surroundings.” Surprisingly, the shorter word came into being first – in the eighteenth century. Orientate was not used until the middle of the nineteenth.

However, both words are now considered equally acceptable. Orientate is probably more common in Britain, while orient seems the preferred form in the U.S. The Oxford Canadian Dictionaryaccepts both, defining orient (as it comes first) and then referring the reader to orient when it comes to orientate.

Examples (equally correct)

It should take everyone about a month to orient themselves to the new procedure.

It should take everyone about a month to orientate themselves to the new procedure.

Frankly, although orient is my word of choice, I do occasionally use orientate when it sounds better in a sentence.

Writing Style – Letters and Salutations

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: I am curious as to what salutation should be used on letters when you don’t know the name or gender of the person you’re writing to. Is “gentlemen” passe?

BizWritingTip response: Yes, “gentlemen” by itself is considered passé. You could address the letter to “Ladies and Gentlemen.” (Don’t use the word Dear.”)

However, this terminology is considered very formal. And some women in my workshops have told me they don’t like to be referred to as “Ladies” in the business world.

With a routine or informal letter when you do not know who will be receiving it, I recommend you drop the salutation line altogether and just lead with the subject line. This would be ideal if you were writing a letter that is going into a file.


Re: Employment Reference for Tiger Woods

Another option would be to use a title, if you know it: Dear Human Resources Manager:

Naturally, the best way to get your documents read is to start with the person’s name.

Word Choice – More Important Versus More Importantly

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: Something “that bothers me almost as much as ‘irregardless’ — and may be more commonly used — is ‘more importantly.’ Is it just me or is this actually correct?”

BizWritingTip Response: I hate to tell this, Peter, but when you are starting a sentence “more important” and “more importantly” are considered equally acceptable by the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Examples (equally correct)

More important, we should set the budget for the conference.

More importantly, we should set the budget for the conference.

In addition, the Oxford Canadian Dictionary states: “more importantly is overwhelmingly more common and totally unobjectionable.”


Another homophone story:

Katherine wrote: “When describing an off-site meeting in the company newsletter, a colleague referred to the lovely ‘pompous’ grass on either side of the stage. She had refused to believe me when I said the grass was actually called ‘pampas.’ After all, the spell checker accepted pompous.” (Pompous means self-important.)

Grammar Tip – Learned or Learnt

Grace’s question: “Is the word ‘learned’ as past tense right or should it be ‘learnt’ instead?”

BizWritingTip response:  “Learn” is an interesting verb. When using it in the past tense or as a past participle, you have two options.

Examples (correct)

learned about the meeting last week. (past tense)

learnt about the meeting last week. (past tense)

have learned about your decision. (past participle)

have learnt about your decision. (past participle)

Learnt is more common in British English, and “learned in American English. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary accepts both.

There are a number of other verbs that also fall into this category:

burned, burnt
dreamed, dreamt
kneeled, knelt
leaned, leant
leaped, leapt
spelled, spelt
spilled, spilt
spoiled, spoilt

Dictionaries usually show the principal parts of verbs with unusual endings. If you are in doubt about any form, check your dictionary.

Note: I always recommend using the spelling style of the reader. That way you will not distract the reader from your message. Remember your goal is to communicate clearly not to try to educate a reader to your spelling preference.

Word Choice – Irregardless

A BizWritingTip reader has asked us to comment on the word irregardless.

Irregardless is a word that many communicators mistakenly believe is correct in formal writing or speaking. It came into being in the early 20th century, but it has to be one of the most contentious words in the English language. It has been criticized for being an improper joining of irrespective and regardless.

It also does not make any sense to combine the negative ir- prefix and the –less suffix. Although there are other words that have similar redundant affixes, such as inflammable, irregardless really does upset people.

It has been considered a mistake for many years and will probably continue to do so. Stick with regardless.

Note – Similar Sounding Words

In a previous issue, I asked people to send me homophones (words that have the same sound but a different meaning) that they have found amusing in written documents. Here are some of the submissions:

We should discuss the roll of the manager. (Is the manager into gymnastics? Role works better.)

It was an exercise in fertility. (I know we want our offices to be productive but surely not reproductive. When an activity is absolutely useless, it is an exercise in futility.)

Let’s send out a notice about the upcoming statuary holidays. (What do statues do on their holidays? Statutory holidays are public holidays established by the government.)

On a company created Christmas email: Marry Christmas!

Writing Style – The Plural of Email

A BizWritingTip reader wrote:? I challenged my boss that we can use the word emails when referring to more than one. But he said that there’s no “s” on the end as in paper mail there’s no “s” on the end. We would never say that we received mails today. Please advise.

BizWritingTip’s response: Technically, your boss is correct. The word email stands for electronic mail. It can be used as a verb (meaning sent by email) or as a noun (meaning a message sent by email). To make the noun plural, some writers prefer to use the term “email messages.”

However …

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary now accepts the commonly-used version “emails.”

Therefore, I am going to say you are both correct.

Note: Email can be spelled with or without the hyphen as long as you are consistent. The Canadian style is to use the hyphen. However, I am seeing more and more organizations dropping it.

Writing Style – Copying a Third Party

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: Help us settle a debate: If the letter content is identical and you want two parties to be aware that the other party has received the same information, can you send just one letter and CC: the other person? Or, do you have to send each person two copies of the same letter?

BizWritingTip reply: When you put a copy notation at the end of the letter, it means you have sent two separate documents — the original to the person to whom the document is addressed and a copy to the person at the bottom of the page.

The person to whom the document is addressed is considered the primary reader.

If the two people are of equal importance and you expect a response from both, I would send two separate letters and note the other receiver’s name on the copy to line. However, I would send only one document to each person – even though they have been copied on the other identical letter. After all, we’re drowning in paper. There’s no need to add to it.

Another option would be to mention in the body of the letter that you have sent a duplicate message to the other party. There would then be no reason to use a copy to line.

Note: The term cc (carbon copy or complimentary copy) in a hard copy letter is outdated. I suggest using just one C. or typing out Copy to.