Friday, January 20, 2012

Grammar Brigade: Commonly Confused Terms (2)

a while vs awhile
affect vs effect
beside vs besides
less vs fewer
between vs among vs amid

a while vs awhile

Should we stop for awhile? or Should we stop for a while?

"Awhile" is an adverb. It denotes that we do something for a while. In this case, while is a noun, and a- is a prefix that says "this is an adverb!"

"A while" is a noun. Typically, if you use for or in, you should use "a while."

So, we can stop awhile, or we can stop for a while.

You can sing awhile, or you'll sing in a while.

You also use a while if it can be replaced with a day (or another definitive length of time.)
I dropped my brother off a while ago.
It's been a while since last we saw one another.
A while later, Luke tried to ride the shark to the zoo.

Affect vs effect

Affect is a verb. Effect is a noun.

You can affect the forces of fate, but you won't feel the effect of Luke's adventure until the painkillers wear off.
There are two exceptions to this rule: effect synonymous to enact, used to mean "to make happen," and affect, which is a psychology term and a noun, meaning "a mental state."  
Luke's shark is running for Mayor. It promises to effect a change in shark-riding laws. It has already effected major political reform in Chicago's traffic laws.
The painkillers altered your affect to confusion and shark paranoia.

Beside vs Besides

 Beside is a preposition meaning "next to." I sit beside Charlene. The tooth is beside the fire hydrant. The fire is not beside the fire hydrant.

Besides means either "except" (preposition) or "in addition to" (adverb). Everyone besides Luke liked the shark's platform. Besides, Charlene was the only other candidate, and no one liked her.

Less vs fewer

Fewer is used for "count" nouns: things that can be discretely counted by whole numbers. In other words, fewer people understand the mathematical terms "discrete" and "whole numbers" than understand this example. You don't count partial people (3.5 people? Who cut Luke in half???) Therefore, a count of people is 'fewer.'

Fewer dogs chase bones than chase food.
Charlene received fewer votes than Luke's shark.
Charlene used fewer teaspoons of sugar in her coffee the next morning.

Less is used 'mass' nouns: things that aren't counted individually. There was less salt in the shaker this morning; Charlene used less sugar in the shark soup than last time.

Note that time, money, and distance use less instead of fewer. We walked for less than three miles to get to the store. It took us less than half an hour to purchase more salt. The salt cost less than $100.

Another way to think of it is in terms of number vs amount. If you're talking the number of something, you'll want to use fewer. If you're talking the amount of something, use less.

Between vs among vs amid

Between should always be used for a one-to-one relationship involving two entities. Between Luke and the shark, there was only animosity. Avery and I carried the boulder between us. The two brothers had an agreement between them.

Between can also be used for more than two entities if it is understood that in any give interaction, the between refers to only two individuals. "We traveled between China, Canada, and Chile" works because we go from one country to one country. Without time travel, we cannot go from China to both Canada and Chile at the same time.

Among is used for when the parties involved are count nouns and there are more than two of them, but there is not a direct one-to-one relationship. (Think joint ownership.) The cup sat among the seven empty soda bottles. The countries shared a mutual-defense agreement among them. We agree there would be no back-stabbing among us.

Think about the difference between these sentences:
1) Charlene walked between the desks.
2) Charlene walked among the desks.
In the first, there are two distinct desks she is directly moving between. It's an exact location.
In the second, she is moving among many desks. It's more a general location.

Amid is used for mass nouns. The cup sat amid the trash. There was a tulip amid a sea of green. There was a minute of peace amid the talk of politics.

The shark sat between Luke and Charlene.
The shark sat among the councilors.
The shark sat amid the council.

Awhile vs a while:
Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition
Grammar girl
Daily writing tips
Affect vs. Effect:
Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed
Grammar girl
Daily writing tips
Beside vs. Besides:
Learn English
Less vs. fewer:
Grammar girl
amid vs between vs among:
Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed
Grammar girl
Translegal: Common Mistakes

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