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More Questions from the Inbox

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 2, 2008, page 24)

The questions on grammar, punctuation and usage that ran in the last issue of Language Update did not deplete my inbox, not by a long shot. So here is another set of tricky queries for you to read, mull over and learn from.

I share these questions in full sympathy with the askers. We all need to remember that the best writers and editors among us scratch our heads over certain constructions from time to time. In that spirit, this article ends with a question of my own, a plea for help that I sent out to some colleagues on one of those days when I just wasn’t sure.

Question (comma usage)

I was wondering if you could help me with a problem involving comma usage. Here’s the sentence:

Most 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 (comma usage)

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. For the same reason you wouldn’t put a comma after bananas in this sentence—

Apples, oranges and bananas are nutritious and inexpensive.

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

In case that isn’t enough, placing a comma after from violates another comma rule too: do not separate a preposition (from) from its object (organisms) with a comma.

Question (looked to be)

I’m reading a manuscript that insists on using 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?

Freelance editor, Toronto

Answer (looked to be)

At first glance, look 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 delve into your suggestion that the expression might be British, I paged through The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 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.

So according to Fowler’s, the construction is acceptable, but as an editor I wouldn’t let it take root in a text. Like appear to be and seem to be, look to be is 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 excessive in writing.

Question (fewer and less #1)

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 (fewer and less #1)

It should be fewer, not less. The rule is pretty much unvarying: less with a singular word (less food, less vegetation, less population); fewer with a plural word (fewer almonds, fewer weeds, fewer inhabitants).

Fewer than may look strange to you 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 one possible solution: ". . . 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.

When in doubt . . .

Thanks, Frances. After playing around with this sentence even more, I decided to change it to this:

She moved to Burtonsville, then a small, sleepy community south of Boise . . .

You were right—the whole thing was too wordy anyway.

Question (fewer and less #2)

Today I encountered a usage issue that has me scratching my head. When reporting a percentage, does one say less than or fewer than? For example, "less than 40% of the subjects reported . . ." or "fewer than 40% of the subjects reported . . ."?

Editor, social sciences journal, Ottawa

Answer (fewer and less #2)

I have a couple of usage books that 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 the phrase 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.

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, considers without his wife to be dangling. I’m not sure I agree. Couldn’t that phrase just as correctly modify his life, as it does in the above sentence, as it might modify he (which is what the answer key suggests to "correct" the problem)? I’m thinking along these lines: "His life with his wife was wonderful; his life without his wife was onerous."

Canvassing my colleagues in West Coast Editorial Associates

Answers from colleagues

  1. I agree with you. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the so-called dangler modifying his life.
  2. I think you’re right and that the phrase can modify his life (or plain old life).
  3. 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 annoying 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 e-mail.