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Companies should make ‘less’ grammar mistakes

Grammar definition in dictionary

In a restaurant the first bite is with the eye. Well, I think that applies to other things as well. I am genuinely put off brands that use poor grammar in their adverts – but am I just being petty?

On my way into work earlier this week I spotted an advert that made me stop in my tracks. Virgin Active is proudly boasting, in a poster campaign all over tube stations, that their gyms have ‘more weights’ for ‘less pounds’.

How many pounds should a gym membership cost? Not being a gym-goer, I haven’t the foggiest idea. But being an irritating pedant, I know it’s definitely not ‘less’ than anything. It’s fewer.

Let’s have fewer mistakes

A few colleagues laughed at me in the office because I came in and had a rant about the ad. Some said it wasn’t important, others suggested it was a deliberate mistake. Which? Conversation’s Patrick thought it might be an issue of tone – they wanted to seem casual, so chose words that their audience might use in conversation.

If you’d like to see the ad, Twitter user @charlesarthur kindly tweeted a picture.

So was it a genuine mistake, or did they deliberately choose to use incorrect grammar because they thought it made a better ad? I asked Virgin Active on Twitter but I didn’t get a reply. Fair enough – it’s a pretty pedantic point.

Would bad grammar stop you buying?

Personally, I think good grammar is important if you want to show people that you’re a trusted brand. After all, I wouldn’t hire someone whose CV was littered with spelling and grammar mistakes, so why would I buy into a service that appears to be so slapdash as to not proofread its work?

I might be over exaggerating a tad. If something was a genuine, out-and-out bargain I probably wouldn’t refuse to buy it on the basis of my grammatical principles. But I don’t think it does a brand’s reputation any good to plaster their name right next to a grammatical error.

A while ago Patrick discussed poor spelling and grammar on websites. That’s something that also irritates me, but I don’t think it’s as serious. On a website you’re producing a huge amount of copy, and no matter how carefully you check it, mistakes are bound to slip through. What’s more, they can be easily and quickly corrected when you spot them.

But on a national advertising campaign which requires you to print up hundreds of posters, the least I’d expect is for companies to pay attention to their grammar. That way perhaps they’d make fewer mistakes. So what say you – am I being ridiculous? Or would bad grammar lead you to think less of a company too?

Is 'bored of' ever acceptable?

No - it should always be written 'bored with' (59%, 72 Votes)

Yes - 'bored of' is an acceptable use of English (25%, 31 Votes)

Maybe - it depends on the context (16%, 20 Votes)

Total Voters: 124

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I remember a good few years ago (before I worked here), a national clothing chain used “you’re” instead of “your” for a good few weeks. Used to wind me up everytime I walked past it! As for “there, their and they’re”, well… 😉

John Irwin says:
5 January 2012

One of the major supermarkets now has a “10 items or fewer” queue which is a great step forward!

Apostrophes are my main complaint. USwitch for some reason have an errant apostrophe in their tv ad which is irritating (they attribute a comment to “the Jones’ ” which is wrong on so many levels).

Oh, and “your” and “you’re” and the various spellings of “to” and, Jo is right, “their” are another irritation. It’s not difficult!

Vicky A says:
5 January 2012

the less / fewer mistake is a pet hate of mine! I also saw the virgin gym advert you mention, and yes I ranted about it to whoever would listen, (and a few who did not). Now, I’m not a pedant (and certainly can’t spell – ask anyone who sees my twitter feed) but I agree that a national advertising campaign should have correct use of grammar… or i end up remembering thier advert for all the wrong reasons

If you remember the advert, albeit for the wrong reasons, the advertiser has achieved its purpose!

Scott Humphrey says:
5 January 2012

I think they’ve more or less achieved wider coverage with this ad now *groan*

If in doubt whether to use an apostrophe, best off leaving it out.

Greengrocers have been getting away with it for years: “Potatoes” is correct, “Potato’s” might be correct, but “Potatoes’ ” isn’t [or aunt, even, in modern argot]. The supermarkets with their corporate labelling took away all this diversity which is why we patronise the local greengrocers with their “cue’s” and “toms’ ” and who also have a nice line in “sparagus” ,”advocado” and “collie-flower” [but, then, this is Norfolk where eveything’s a bit diffrunt].
I am convinced that the grammar, syntax and spelling of the English language in the UK is monitored as diligently as it is because it is an easy way to sort the sheep from the goats. I hope someone [like the OED perhaps] is saving the Message Boards of England for posterity because therein lie evidence of the structure of the everyday language and development of its usage which will be of great benefit to future commentators, historians and lexicographers.
My pet hate is “could of” [for “could have”] which is now common parlance although I have not yet seen it in an advert [but it is only a matter of time I suppose]. It will then become a case of “this year’s must-have hair style” mutating to “this year’s must-of . . .”. I also hate “for free” and “treble” [for “triple”] but they are so common that to boycott such advertisers would be too detrimental.
“Five Items or Fewer” does not sound so snappy as the “. . . Less” version, so why not use fewer characters, and less cardboard, and write “Up To 5”, or – to be really slick – “<6".

Rob Waller says:
5 January 2012

Ultimately grammar is about common usage, and changes over time. In effect, if the whole population starts to say ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’, they have voted for it and it is correct. If you go back far enough, ‘an orange’ was ‘a norange’, and there was no such thing as a ‘pea’ just ‘pease’. Spelling has only been standardised fairly recently, and a number of grammatical ‘rules’ were invented by Victorian grammarians trying to regularise the language – the split infinitive, for example, is a mythical rule that stems from the fact that in Latin the infinitive verb form is a single word so cannot be split. We frequently use ‘more’ and ‘less’ as opposites, and ’10 items or less’ is snappy, clear and no one can misunderstand what it means. I refer you to that authority on all things, Steven Fry and the QI team – I recorded one of their programmes (Dec 09) that quoted the Oxford Companion to the English Language as saying ‘there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clearcut, known, understood and followed by most educated people.’ It’s (its?) on Youtube. See also the episode of Room 101 where Marcus Brigstocke rants against the grammar bullies. Hopefully you’ll enjoy (warning: irony 🙂

Completely agree with Rob

You only have to read forums – to realise this is now common usage. Mind you if you pay teachers more it could regress to the 1980’s

Most contributors to Which? Conversation take care over what they write, and the Which? team set a good example. Rob and Richard are right about our language evolving, though I a keen to preserve use of paragraphs and capitalisation of words, where appropriate.

I am reluctant to buy from an online retailer if their website contains spelling and grammatical errors, or poor quality information. I assume that a an organisation that is sloppy in one way could have other deficiencies.

Normally, I try to use “fewer” rather than “less” wherever it is appropriate according to the traditional rules. But sometimes I can accept the odd exception. In the case of the ad in question, I think the use of “Less” is more aesthetically pleasing because as a 4-letter word it mirrors nicely the word “More” written just above it. In general, when I read a paragraph and I come across a spelling, grammatical or punctuation error, it makes me pause and lose my train of thought. This wouldn’t be good in an advert as it would lessen my understanding of the message the company is trying to put across. Of course, in less formal writing, we all make errors in grammar. For example, I’ve just started a sentence with the word “but” a few sentences above, and you have split an infinitive (although that’s an acceptable thing to do nowadays) and wrote “I might be over exaggerating” when you meant “I may be overexaggerating” (or “over-exaggerating”). Taken literally, what you wrote has a different meaning to what you wanted to say (it means “previously exaggerating but not anymore”, as opposed to “exaggerating too much”.) But since we all understand what you meant, that’s not a problem. The point I’m trying to make is that we all make such mistakes all the time, but when it’s in an advert the writer needs to pay more attention.

(By the way, I wish the head teacher at my children’s school would pay more attention to detail in what he writes in the newsletters. He keeps writing “extra curricular” instead of “extracurricular”. He’s supposed to be setting an example for the new generation.)

Rhys Williams says:
9 January 2012

How about ‘More weights for less money’ then? Job done.

Ah yes, but “money” doesn’t have the intended double meaning that “pounds” has.

Rhys Williams says:
9 January 2012

I know, but we can’t have it all, can we?

OK then, how about this.

Lose pounds.
Save pounds.

(I promise to stop now)

Now that’s a pretty good phrase Rhys.

Rhys: you should be an advertising copywriter, with clever phrases like that!

Rob Waller says:
6 January 2012

To show I’m as capable as pedantry as the next person, surely it isn’t over exaggerating, or over-exaggerating… it is just ‘exaggerating’.

A few years ago Private Eye had an extended debate , ironically enough, about whether their Pendant’s Corner column should be called Pedants Corner, Pedant’s Corner, Pedants’ Corner, there being arguments for all three. It is now called Pedantry Corner, in neat sidestep.

A quick response to something Nikki said: to use ‘less’ is not to ditch ‘fewer’. We have many cases where a slightly different word is used for a similar meaning, depending on context: quick/fast/speedy comes to mind. It’s why English is a rich language but exasperating to learn. And why I’d rather be English than French – they may have better food, beautiful countryside, and nice weather, but they also have the Académie Française telling them what they can and can’t say.

The use of ‘very unique’ annoys me, but I can identify with over-exaggerating. Estate agents often describe houses as deceptively spacious. This can be an exaggeration, and in some cases because rooms do look much larger in an unfurnished house. In this context I would regard over-exaggeration as tantamount to misrepresentation.

‘Exaggerating’ has been debased, in the same way that ‘awful’ was, many years ago.

OK, Rob, I’ll be really pedantic here. It is the ‘Académie française’. There is no capital letter on the second word, as it is used as an adjective. Nationalities are in capitals only when referring to the names of the people (‘un Français’, but ‘un homme français’).

Sorry, I am digressing onto another language here! I can’t help it; I teach French!

I have to say I’m broadly on the side of Rob and Richard. Language evolves, new grammar is created. And I’m happy to say Stephen Fry agrees with us as well (I’ve embedded a video of his essay below).

However, if bad grammar impacts understanding then it should be strongly enforced. In this case, I think we understand what Virgin means and I do wonder whether this less and fewer distinction will die out. If it takes more to understand the rule than it does to understand the wrong usage, I’m not sure it’s worth retaining.

Again though, I must add a caveat. As a writer and editor, good grammar is very important to me in the written and published word. I’m happy to play with language and colloquialisms, but I still hold my grammar to a high standard as I’m sure Fry does. But if the less and fewer distinction begins to die out, I won’t be one of the ones complaining about it. I will most likely embrace it. I’m bored of grammar spats… 😉

The reason that grammar is poor is because there was a period when grammar was not taught at school. I think it is taught now although of course many of the teachers teaching were those students who weren’t taught any grammar.

I don’t believe that dictation has returned to the curriculum. It is a very valuable way of putting into the memory the spelling of words. Instead we have had a period of just teaching for the test – a good spelling test result but then not being able to remember and use the spelling later in composition. I am surprised with all that we now know about learning processes that this still hasn’t happened.

It is all very well talking about the way that spelling and grammar evolves but much of this is simply because so many different versions are seen it is difficult to know which one to copy or which one is the correct one.

We can all make mistakes especially when we rattle of forum responses fast on a keyboard. However I am amazed at the number of people who are now using apostrophes to show a plural instead of adding ‘s’ or ‘es’. Grammar used to be treated as a challenge – the mastering of which gave great satisfaction. I remember listening and concentrating so hard to dictation to pick up where the question marks and other punctuation went. I certainly don’t use a lot of punctuation nowadays.

So did you spot the missing letter in my poorly checked post above?

Another reason for poor spelling and grammar is that teachers are no longer supposed to correct everything. If it is not in a spelling context then it does not have to be corrected – very muddling and unhelpful for those who don’t have a photographic memory and have to put in more effort to learn spellings.

I was taught that if something could be counted then ‘fewer’ should be used and if not ‘less’. Less people always sounds like it is a collection of bits of people rather than a number of whole human beings.

I hate could of – which has presumably come about because lack of reading and writing, and also bored of instead of bored with.

Lower case letters for words such as the months of the year, the days of the week and Easter and Christmas on signs in shops. This is most irritating when you are trying to teach a small child correct English.

Anon the mouse says:
14 January 2012

I’m assuming you mean the missing f. Unless I have failed to spot a second mistake.

Yes, I spotted the missing ‘f’ straightaway. I am very hot on grammar, but I still make many mistakes, as I am by no means a good typist.

With reference to your ‘fewer / less’ paragraph, I agree that the rule is correct. However, how do you handle the following example?

“It takes ten minutes or less.”
“It takes ten minutes or fewer.”

Both are correct, depending on whether one is referring to the uncountable concept of time or the countable number of minutes.

mmap says:
8 January 2012

“,but I don’t think it’s as serious.”

As serious as what?

Richard_SM says:
8 January 2012

Language evolves and it wasn’t very long ago that it was all blamed on the influence of American TV programmes. Now we have the internet and SMS texts (what is the past form BTW?) to cause even the most moderate grammarian to chunter on about the latest transgressions. I wonder how much our teachers are responsible for passing on their pet hates and idiosyncrasies knowing it would be a source of great irritation to us in later life. I still pronounce ‘either’ and ‘neither’ in the way it was drummed into me by a certain grey-haired teacher, and not ‘eether’ and ‘neether’ as the BBC torments me with everyday.Yes, it is everyday and it’s gone beyond a joke, but how can you complain without complete confidence in your own grammatical awareness knowing that your letter is likely to be opened by some UCL graduate who’s bound to find at least one error and will delight in ensuring your complaint is read out, together with name and address, at peak time on Radio 4?

So, taking advantage of the anonymity this forum offers (Richard maybe my real name, there again it may not) let me pour out some observations, concerns and questions.

In the 1950s at school in maths we did endless ‘more than, less than’ exercises on heavenly scented sheets produced by the Banda machine. It wasn’t just numerical comparisons, ‘more than, less than’ exercises were done in imperial (t, cwt, qtr, st, lb, oz, drc, gr) and metric units and in fractions (thirdss, eighths, twelfths, sixty-fourths) and decimals. The whole ‘more than, less than’ doctrine was later confirmed in science when we learned the symbols > more than and < less than. Having embedded this in our sub-conscious, we were told many years later it was wrong. Too late! It's been passed to the next generation. So the 'less/fewer' debate is over as far as I'm concerned; it went viral decades ago. And if we all think back to our schooldays, we'll realise the people complaining today about the use of 'five items or less' are the people who excelled in English but were baffled during maths and science lessons. This is just the settling of old scores and It won't work.

Now, I don't remember being taught at school an easy way to remember whether to use 'that' or 'which' in sentences. I was probably gazing out the window when it was covered so if anyone wishes to pass on a simple rule I shall be eternally grateful.

Here's another one. Why did we refer to many of the state monoply companies using the articile 'the' before their name, but didn't do it for private companies? We still call it the BBC and the NHS, and many people used to refer to the BRS (British Road Services), the British Steel, the British Gas. Yet today people simply say GEC or Anglian Water. The GPO is now BT. Has privatisation changed the way in which we use language?

That's enough for now.

Did you insert many spelling mistakes in your post to be provocative?

“For free” jars with me. I think even Which? has used this expression. As someone has pointed out elsewhere people would not say “for cheap”. The correct expression surely “for nothing”, “without charge” or “free meal/booklet/toy” etc. “For free” is so commonly used it seems to have been accepted into the English language by default. On the other hand the grocer’s apostrophe is widely used too but that doesn’t seem to make it right.

I think poor spelling and grammar ae evidence of sloppiness and therefore undermine my trust in the advertiser.

However, we have to remember that English changes very quickly. For example, Trollope happily uses ‘less’ for ‘fewer’ in a way which those of us who care would now find incorrect. As always we are living in a time of change and have to be sensitive to the difference between fossilising a language (keeping it as we were taught it should be) and allowing developments which increase its richness.

Hate to point out that a vast number of shopkeepers especially in London are foreign immigrants and do not have the advantage of an English education.

Many of my local shopkeepers write impeccable Polish. This is not a dig at Poles – just I know Polish

Believe the ‘Full Monty’ is acceptable as meaning the ‘whole hog’
even possibly in the eastern United States.

Leslie Olive says:
8 January 2012

“Good” grammar aids effective communication, except when it has moved so far out of use as to seem stilted – as in the case of the “correct” “it is I” in place of the “incorrect” “it’s me”. Anyone producing written material should work hard at correct grammar and spelling. In my view it is an offence (albeit a mild one) against the handsomeness of public life when printed or electronic media show insufficient care.

I am heartened to see so many people expressing their concerns over grammatical mistakes commonly heard or read nowadays. One that I find particularly irksome is the use of the passive form of verbs such as ‘to sit’ and ‘to stand’ when the active form is meant. I continually hear ‘I was sat’ or ‘we were stood’ instead of ‘I was sitting’ or ‘we were standing’ when, presumably, the speaker chose to sit or stand and was not made to by someone or something else. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon, but I sense it is now much more widespread than a few decades ago. Is it perhaps old English or has it crossed the Atlantic? What do my fellow pedants or others think? Perhaps, Lynne Truss could join in the debate.

There are typos or minor grammatical errors that can be overlooked or
forgiven AND there are far more/serious ones that simply can’t… many people
in blogs I’ve come across omit use of the ‘apostrophe’ when called for…
many also fail to distinguish use of ‘there’ with ‘there’re’ and indeed ‘their’
as a further example.

Courts of law will not tolerate serious errors in drafted documents and quite
rightly so.

Good use of punctuation is very helpful to the reader and can remove ambiguity. I find it difficult to understand why legal documents usually contain little punctuation, supposedly to avoid ambiguity.

Spot on, wavechange , punctuation marks in the right places
can assist clarity but in the wrong places can give rise to ambiguity
….. a will document, for example, contains no punctuation marks
at all…what’s drafted should be capable of standing on its own
(too late, of course, to ask Testator what he really meant as to
a particular will provision the subject of a dispute).

Yes, they also and even write out the date, month and year in full
and not merely, say, 8th January 2012.

Wavechange / Argonaut,

Here is one of several examples that I have, where incorrect punctuation can lead to incorrect conveyance of the message:

“Dear Mother,

In law there is nothing to make me say thank you, but the quality of your gifts compels me to write to tell you how I feel. Thank you so much for the presents! I was expecting nothing more than a token; yet, again, you have exceeded even your own incredible standards.

It was a shame that you that had to stay here for such a short time. I thought that I might have coped, but it was unbearable seeing you leave. The relief was immense when I heard we might see you again soon. I wanted to end it all by saying goodbye now. I hope I will not have to say it to you again for a long time. If you have the opportunity to spend Christmas elsewhere next year, please do not.

Much love,


“Dear Mother-in-Law,

There is nothing to make me say thank you, but the quality of your gifts compels me to write to tell you how I feel. Thank you? So much for the presents I was expecting. Nothing more than a token, yet again! You have exceeded even your own incredible standards.

It was a shame that you had to stay here. For such a short time, I thought that I might have coped, but it was unbearable. Seeing you leave, the relief was immense. When I heard we might see you again soon, I wanted to end it all. By saying goodbye now, I hope I will not have to say it to you again for a long time. If you have the opportunity to spend Christmas elsewhere next year, please do.

Not much love,