A swing and a miss: why not everyone should write about English on the web

English, English, General Interest, General Interest, Miscellaneous, Rants, Rants 1 Comment

So my boss passed around a list that he got from @GuyKawasaki about eleven writing errors that make a person look stupid, which should be avoided.

Thing is, five of these eleven are wrong.

i.e. does not “specify and limit”, nor is it exchangeable with namely.  Both i.e. and e.g. are used to give example lists; the people that author are picking at stand a small chance of being correct.

e.g., (“exempli gratia” -> ‘gratuitous example’) is used for giving case examples (e.g. this example right here).

i.e. (“id est” -> ‘it is’) is used when you can give every possible example: you are concretely defining the list.  For instance, I could talk about the primary colors (i.e. red, yellow and blue), but I could not talk about the list of all colors (e.g. red, orange, chartreuse, gray, et cetera.)

The next is subtle.

With regards to “none is”, that depends on whether you’re dealing with a group singular or a group plural.  Indeed, is/are are in context how one deals with resolving whether a group or singular plural is in use; to suggest that either are always concretely correct and the other never is fundamentally wrong-headed.

Group singulars and group plurals are differentiated along lines of when you’re talking about the group as a whole, or when you’re talking about a set of individual members.  For example, when you talk about the many religions found in Bharat’s individuals, you might say “the people of India are varied in belief”.

The problem with “none” is that people expect it always to refer to single individuals within a group.  So by the example on that page, “Though many religions are found in India, none of its people is Rastafarian”, though agonizing to the ear, is technically correct.

However, there are ways to make none apply to groups despite context – for example, when categorizing.  Going on the observation that there are a bunch of variants of Christianity, such as Protestantism or Catholocism, and pretending those people aren’t in India (I know, they are, I just need an example), “Though many religions are found in India, none of its religions are Christian in nature” would apply, because its context refers to groups.

Prevarication Junction is particularly annoying: sometimes it’s appropriate to say what you think rather than what you know, and their third example is a concrete knowledge.  Indeed, stating the first two as concrete knowledge would be lying: one cannot know that they will be good for a company without the ability to see the future, because they might turn out to not fit in well in the corporate culture, or might not have the right skillset, or might not be able to focus on the job; similar remarks apply to the product for the company.

It is common for people to claim that speaking in absolutes is better language.  This is complete bullshit.  It’s just a way for people to sound more confident than they really are, to make themselves look good at the expense of being precise or honest.  This only works on stupid people, and backfires on smart people.  Do not claim to know things when you actually only suspect them (one doesn’t know it, one suspects it, and when it turns out to be wrong, one looks like a horse’s ass.)

Under no circumstances state things that are suspected as if they are fact.  This advice is terrible.

The bit about preferring “et al” to “et cetera” is absolute nonsense.  Use et cetera when applying to lists.  Et al only gets used in lists of people.

Of course, the more germane point here is that both etc. and et al are generally unnecessary and considered bad form; use either only when necessary to maintain understandable brevity.

The bit about less versus fewer is generally correct in spirit.  However, it has nothing to do with finite-ness.  This is actually about group plurals versus group singulars (and basic singulars) again: fewer dollars make for less money.  If half of India were to move to Russia one day, then there would be fewer people there, and less population.

This is understandable, of course: three of these are obscure parts of English, and everyone on the web thinks they’re qualified to teach English despite having no formal training theretowards.

Ambrose Bierce, however, is to be trusted.  If Ambrose Bierce and another source disagree, and neither source explicitly distances itself from differing sets of rules (eg American/British English, obsolete/modern usage, whatever), then nine times in ten Bierce will be correct.


Good sir, please do us the favor of not writing any more articles about what’s correct in English until you’ve taken some courses that would allow you to teach English in a school system somewhere.  The average sixth grader wouldn’t make most of these mistakes.

Guy Kawasaki’s books actually contain several counter-examples to these wisdumbs.  I hope he’ll read more carefully before recommending in the future.