Less vs. Fewer, and other Dilemmas of Technical Writing

You’re a good writer, and others understand what you mean. But there are a few hiccups that always get caught when editors review your papers. This article is intended to assist you in selecting the correct word and avoid word-selection errors.

Less or Fewer?

This one is easy. If you can count specific items, use “fewer.” For example, at the grocery store check-out, “This Lane is for 12 Items or Fewer.” Other examples: “I have less money now than I did last year;” or “Fewer than thirty people attended the meeting.” For more info, click here.confused geek

Affect or Effect?

Generally, “affect” is a verb. Used in Biological Assessments, this is always the case, as in “this action may affect federally listed species.” And (generally) “effect” is a noun, such as “the effect of temperature does not alter our results.” Click here for more examples and details.

Principle or Principal?

Do you remember in grade school hearing that “the principal is your PAL?” That’s one clue for the spelling for the noun “principal,” as in “head of the school.” “Principal” is also used to mean “most important.” However, “principle” means “basic truth” as in “he stuck to his principles.” More examples can be found here.

Course or Coarse?

“Coarse” is an adjective that means “rough” as in “the streambed is lined with coarse gravel.” However, “course” can be an adjective, noun, or verb! “Course” can mean “class” (my math course is difficult), or “path / direction” (the stream’s course is through native prairie). Additional examples can be found here.

Capitol or Capital?

“Capitol” refers to the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. States can also have a “capitol building.” “Capital” refers to the upper-case of a letter, or as an adjective; “the capital of South Dakota is Pierre.” There is also a monetary meaning, as in “we need business capital.” More info here.

Gage or Guage?

confused“Guage” is a measuring device, or (as a verb) the act of measuring. “Gage” is a variant of “guage,” but “guage” is the correct term. There are many words that use the root “gage” (meaning “pledge”), such as “engage,” but “gage” itself isn’t typically used. Want more?

Hydrologic or Hydraulic?

This one still trips me up from time to time, and to further confuse the matter, these two words often are used together! “Hydrologic” refers to the movement, distribution, and quantity of water. For more information on hydrology, click here. “Hydraulic” could involve water, but also other fluids, and relates to pressure, and ways to use liquid when it is moving. Additional hydraulic information can be found here.

Hope this helps! Happy (more accurate) writing!

Becky Latka

About Becky Latka

With over 30 years of writing experience, Becky Latka can assist you with your writing and editing needs. Her background includes over 20 years within the federal government, teaching at the high school and community college level, and work in various laboratories within Nebraska.

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