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More Questions from the Inbox

   

There’s never any shortage of questions about grammar, punctuation and usage in my email inbox. Here is another set of thorny queries from language professionals for you to read, mull over and learn from.

I share these questions in full sympathy with the askers. The best writers and editors among us agonize over certain constructions from time to time. In fact, this article ends with a question of my own that I sent my work partners on one of those days when I just wasn’t sure.

Comma

Question: Could you help with a problem involving comma usage? Here’s the sentence:

  • Recently, laws went into force that require labelling of food and feed containing, consisting of, or produced from biotechnology-derived organisms.

There is some debate among the editors about putting a comma after from. Do you know the rule that governs this situation?
Federal agency editor, Ottawa

Answer: I’m happy to settle the debate and cite a rule. Verdict: there should not be a comma after from in your sentence. The rule: do not place a comma after the last item in a series. You wouldn’t put a comma after bananas in this sentence:

  • Apples, oranges and bananas are nutritious and inexpensive.

Similarly, you wouldn’t put one after the third verbal phrase, produced from, in yours.

If that isn’t enough, placing a comma after from violates another comma rule: do not use a comma to separate a preposition (from) from its object (biotechnology-derived organisms). (Commas That Clutter: Unnecessary Commas)

Expression looked to be

Question: I’m reading a manuscript that frequently uses looked to be—"she looked to be about thirty," "it looked to have been built around the twelfth century," etc. Where does this looked to be come from? Appeared to be probably, but the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage doesn’t even like appeared in some cases. A writer friend thinks looked to be is British, and it sounds all right to him. Any thoughts?

Answer: At first glance, looked to be struck me as idiomatically fine. I’ve seen and heard the phrase plenty and have undoubtedly used it myself. To be certain, and to explore your suggestion that the expression might be British, I paged through The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed., 1996), where lo and behold the construction gets a nod:

"A third use of look + to-infinitive lies within the branch of meaning that the OED defines as ‘to have a certain appearance’ . . . . It means ‘to seem to the view, to appear, to look as if’. Examples: A little hat that looked to be made of beaver . . . The Queen looked to be in good health . . . . This type seems to be gaining ground, esp. in America."

Funny, isn’t it? We Canadians point to the Brits; the Brits point to the Americans. No wonder we find usage confusing.

Even though the construction is acceptable, as an editor I wouldn’t let it take over a text. Like appear to be and seem to be, look to be can be redundant. All four verbs—look, appear, seem and be—are linking verbs, which by definition convey the subject’s state or condition. Doubling up on linking verbs, while common in speech, is seldom necessary in writing.

Fewer versus less #1

Question: I am brain-dead with this project and can no longer think straight. Here is the sentence:

  • She moved to Burtonsville, then a sleepy community of less than a thousand inhabitants south of Boise.

I know the fewer/less rule. But this morning I can’t decide if this wording is right or if it should be "fewer than a thousand inhabitants," and I can’t even articulate why. Help!
Freelance writer, Vancouver

Answer: It should be fewer, not less. The rule, as you know on better days, is pretty straightforward: less with a singular word (less food, less vegetation, less population); fewer with a plural word (fewer almonds, fewer weeds, fewer inhabitants).

Fewer may look strange to you in this sentence because it’s morning (understandable) or because the following words are a thousand, which we tend to treat as a singular amount when quantifying a population. This leads to another correct option: ". . . a sleepy community of less than a thousand south of Boise." This revision keeps the singular amount and ditches the distracting inhabitants. It has the virtue of being less wordy too.

Fewer versus less #2

Question: Today I encountered a usage issue that has me scratching my head. When reporting a percentage, does one say less than or fewer than? Would it be "less than 40 percent of the subjects reported . . ." or "fewer than 40 percent of the subjects reported . . ."?
Editor, social sciences journal, Ottawa

Answer: A couple of usage books say less works well for percentages, but they don’t give examples like yours in which the percentage is followed by a plural word.

I would use fewer, and here’s why. All authorities consider "40 percent of the subjects" to be plural because of the phrase "of the subjects." We would write, for instance, "40 percent of the subjects agree" (plural) because the plurality of the word subjects overrides the singularity of percent. Because your construction is plural, fewer is the correct choice.

However, if the phrase were "40 percent of the population," things would be different. The singular population would make the whole construction singular and make less than the winning choice. (The Grammar of Numbers)

Dangling modifier

Question (from me this time): Do you think there’s anything grammatically wrong with this sentence?

  • Without his wife, his life became onerous.

The copyediting textbook I teach from, which is so riddled with errors I can no longer look at it objectively, calls without his wife a dangling modifier because it describes his life (the subject of the sentence). I’m not sure that’s a problem. Isn’t it okay for the opening phrase to modify his life? I’m thinking: "His life with his wife was wonderful; his life without his wife became onerous."
Email to my partners in West Coast Editorial Associates

Answers: Happily, the three partners who replied set my mind at ease.

  • I agree with you. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the so-called dangler modifying his life.
  • I think you’re right and that the phrase can modify his life.
  • The more I think about it, the odder it sounds, though that may just be because of the internal rhyme. I agree with you that without his wife could modify his life. I think it’s okay.

"The more I think about it, the odder it sounds." Here we have the paradox of such questions. To figure out whether a tough sentence is correct, we have to stare at it, ponder it, worry it, stare at it some more . . . until all too often its shape changes, its meaning diffuses and everything we thought we knew evaporates.

That’s when it’s great to have email.

Test yourself