Notes From A Word Nerd, Issue 3: Avoiding Mistakes That Even The Best Writers Make

Welcome to Notes From a Word Nerd Issue 3 — the latest in a series of articles for the passionate writer who, like most of us, suffers from the odd incorrect usage, spelling flub or inappropriate context of certain words. Each article in the series will focus on a particular theme, which you will no doubt find both thoroughly entertaining and topical. So let’s jump right in and learn a few new tricks, using Game of Thrones as a beautiful backdrop.

1. Less Or Fewer?

If you want an easy rule, the difference between “less” and “fewer” is as follows: The conventional guideline is that “fewer” is used for things you count, “less” is used for things you don’t count. You can count White Walkers, words and kings — so you kill fewer White Walkers, write fewer words and slay fewer kings (note my correct omission of the Oxford comma). You can’t count blood, spaghetti or water — so you have less blood coursing through your veins, eat less salad, and observe that Long Lake, northeast of Winterfell, holds less water (note my correct inclusion of the Oxford comma).

2. May Vs. Might

We use “may” to ask for permission (May I borrow your sword to slay that dragon?) or to suggest something is possible (Tyrion may do it instead). We use “might” to suggest a small possibility of something (The dragon might be dead by nightfall). “Might” is more usual than “may” in spoken English, so it’s suggested to use this more often than “may” so as to avoid confusion. Or how about “could”? It seems “could” is rarely used at Movie Pilot. And the dragon could be dead by nightfall, too!

3. In Or On?

We are “in” cities/countries/towns, etc., but “on” islands. Therefore: We are in Rhode Island, but on Long Island. Taika Waititi was born in Raukokore on the North Island of New Zealand. Unless, of course, the island is a country in itself (I used to live in Australia, Tom Hiddleston lived in the UK and Rihanna in the Bahamas. We now all live together on the moon). Dorne is not an island, but on the southern mainland of Westeros. Therefore we are not “on” Dorne but “in” Dorne. However, we use “in” for a collection of islands (Balon Greyjoy was murdered in the Iron Islands. Henry Cavill was born in the Channel Islands).

So are we “in” or “on” a TV show, “in” a movie or “on” a movie?

A television is a physical object, so when you watched one, you’re watching a real-time medium whose pictures were originally projected onto the TV screen. “Look, Jon Snow is naked on the television!” A film or movie is not seen as a physical object, but is instead a collection of information, similar to a book or song. Someone is in a movie in that they are included in the collection of information the movie contains. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is on Game of Thrones and in Gods of Egypt. Alfie Allen is on Game of Thrones and in a Lily Allen song.

4. Possessives And Apostrophes

Its = possessive. Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon Viserion is known for its fire breathing, but its inability to break its chains makes its ferocity kind of useless.

It’s = a conjunction meaning “It is.” It’s unusual for siblings to engage in intercourse, but it’s the Lannisters (save for Tyrion, who prefers the company of whores) who do it anyway.

5. Make Singular Words Ending In S Possessive

Take pronunciation into account. We use an ’s even if a word ends in an “s,” but only if it’s vocalized (Daenerys’s dragons, Stannis’s sword). If the word is a plural common noun (The Lannisters’ castle, the Starks’ direwolves), or the noun is plural in form, singular in meaning (the series’ actors, DC Comics’ failure, for old times’ sake) and the possessive “s” is not vocalized, we do not add it to the end.

6. Collective Nouns

In the US, collective nouns are treated as single units, so we use the singular verb. We think of institutions as single units, and so in America we would write: Marvel Studios has found a successful superhero formula; Adult Swim revealed the rest of its upcoming slate of cable and online shows.

However, when two institutions are grouped together, they are treated as two separate entities, like so: Fox and Marvel have been at each other’s throats for over a decade now; Fox and Marvel held their joint prom last night.

If you’re definitely talking about individuals grouped together in a collective — as in families or gangs — then the plural, or collective, verb is used: The Lannister family are all blond (especially Cersei, who is particularly blonde), or The Avengers are going bowling today.


So this brings us to the end of our latest adventure together. Keep these tips in mind when writing your next article and hopefully you’ll begin to make new connections in your mind and see your writing improve.

Ready to practice what you’ve learned?

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