It’s probably happened to us all when writing or chatting. You’re happily burbling away when some brightspark points out you used ‘less’ when you should have used ‘fewer’.
But after you’ve given the helpful friend your hardest stare, how do you remember next time you’re writing when to use ‘less’ and when is the right time to use ‘fewer’?
Actually, this one should be easy once you know the difference: less means not as much. Fewer means not as many.
So, use ‘fewer’ when referring to items that can be counted individually, like people, products, houses or animals.
- People are buying fewer CDs these days.
- Fewer universities recognise A’level general studies.
On the other hand, use ‘less’ if you’re talking about something that can’t be counted or doesn’t have a plural.
- He earns less money than his wife.
- I want to spend less time commuting to Wordsworks’ offices next year.
You should also use less if you’re referring to numbers on their own, or it’s an expression of measurement or time
- His weight dropped from 15 stone to less than nine.
- The marriage lasted less than six months.
So, hopefully fewer reasons to get it wrong next time – and less chance of being corrected by your friendly neighbourhood smart alec.
It’s a strange quirk of technology that just as two of the most powerful forms of writing – letters and books – come under unprecedented attack from new channels of communication like email, SMS, social media and e-books, the written word itself has never been more important.
We may not be writing as many letters or buying as many books these days, but written communication is at the very core of today’s marketing mix. From social media to brochures, case studies to newsletters, it is words – and the way we use them – that are critical in attracting and engaging audiences.
Copywriting in professional services
For professional services firms, the renewed focus on written communication is a massive opportunity. As a true ‘knowledge industry’, professional services lives and dies by its words – whether it is delivering advice and guidance to clients, attracting and retaining staff, or communicating its key messages to the market. These new channels open up new opportunities to engage with people. New ways to present the firm to clients, to explain your USPs to potential recruits, or to strengthen internal communication.
At the same time, however, the preponderance of new channels means there is more market ‘noise’ to cut through. Audiences have so many channels to choose between, so much material to process, that you have to work harder to make yourself heard – which raises the bar in terms of both quality and effort.
Invest in copy-writing that communicates effectively
Because we’re all bombarded with a barrage of marketing messages every day, we are much more aware of what works and what doesn’t; what rings true and what sounds like hollow promises. As a result, we are more discerning about which messages we engage with. Or, to use a bit of consultancy speak, we know what good looks like. And if the words we read and messages we understand don’t measure up, we tend not to take much notice.
As professional services marketers and copywriters, therefore, we can’t afford to waste a single word we write. Every web page, every newsletter, every brochure or partner profile influences your audiences’ perceptions.
Poor grammar, meandering sentences and jargon overload are obvious no-no’s. But some things are not so easy to correct. A e-newsletter might be grammatically perfect, but if it is written in a style that is too dull and overly formal, readers will soon find something more engaging to read. Equally, a web page might provide a word-perfect overview of your capital markets practice, but if the writing is too long-winded and complicated, no one is going to stick around long enough to find out.
That’s where professional copywriters can add real value, helping you make sure that the values and strengths of the firm are not just superficial embellishments to a brochure or homepage, but that they permeate down through every level of your marketing material.
About Wordsworks Copywriting
Wordsworks provides specialist copywriting and editing services to the business, trade and professional services sectors.
Our team of three highly experienced in-house copywriters are led by creative director Gareth Chadwick. We also have a pool of tried-and-trusted associate writers to call on if required. It’s a collaborative approach that gives us the flexibility to cope with all manner of deadlines and the capacity to take on all sizes of projects.
The meaning of the word honorificabilitudinitatibus
This month at Wordsworks we’ve been desperately trying to slip the word “Honorificabilitudinitatibus” into our conversations and copywriting. No mean feat, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Best not to try wrapping your tongue around this monster after a tipple too many (or in my case, even if you’re stone cold sober).
Honorificabilitudinitatibus, which means the state of being able to achieve honours, or more simply ‘honourableness’, is interesting for two reasons.
Firstly, it’s the longest word in the English language to feature alternating consonants and vowels.
Secondly, it’s the longest word to feature in the works of Shakespeare, being uttered by Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost – which is a bit of a mouthful for a character usually portrayed as a country bumpkin.
Anyone who’s ever worked as a journo will know – unfortunate things can happen. Picture the scene: deadline is fast ticking round, the editor’s gurning through his glass partition and pointing to his watch, and the print manager at the press hall is all ready to hit the button marked ‘go’.
The only problem is, you haven’t yet got that corker of a headline to complement your barnstormer of a page one story. The pressure’s on: with the right few words emblazoned above it, this scoop could see copies of the paper flying off the shelves as if caught in a Kansas tornado.
Mercilessly, the fingers of the clock tick round. Sweat gathers on your forehead. Fingers tremble uncertainly above keys. Eventually, dry-mouthed and palpitating, you have a stark moment of clarity: that crap, placeholder headline you scrawled down ten minutes earlier purely because it fitted the amount of available white space – well, it’ll have to do. I mean, it wasn’t that bad, was it? It was roughly the right number of letters… and it wasn’t inaccurate… and maybe you were just being paranoid… perhaps it was actually rather good… maybe an award is even in the offing! Enough prevaricating – ‘send’.
Giant clanging headlines do sometimes slip through the net. It’s a particular peril at local press level, where bean-counters have been merrily scything staff for years. This has sometimes had the effect of concertinaing the most crucial discussion of the morning (“What’s our splash headline going to be?”) to a five minute discussion between some hapless sub-editor and the bloke who’s restocking the drinks machine.
Or at least, that’s one generous interpretation of how the South Cumbria-based North-West Evening Mail managed to greenlight this sublime offering on the front page of its Saturday June 30 edition.
The story was, on the surface at least, a winner in all respects. It featured an interview with a grieving widower incensed after a court slashed the sentence of the motorist who fatally injured his wife in an accident.
What heart-rending line from the many on offer in the story would the sub choose to lead with? What poignancy could be milked from this most tragic of scenarios? What scintillating, soul-searching quote from the husband should scream out from page one in hundred-point Helvetica?
“I Am Annoyed.”
As, presumably, was the editor, the publisher, and many of the readers once it went into circulation.
Now, while the press is often roundly ridiculed for hyperbole, understatement can, inadvertently, be almost as comical. So, in honour of the North-West Evening Mail’s classic “well, at least it fit the space” offering, perhaps now’s a good time to refresh ourselves on a few top tips for good headline writing.
- Be to the point. In print media, not only can fewer words mean a larger font size, but a short, sharp message can pack a lot more welly than a rambling narrative.
- Use the active voice, not the passive voice. “Hamster Eaten By Freddie Starr” has none of the pizzazz of “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.
- Bring out the human element to the story. A burglary is interesting – but a burglary in which children lose their Christmas presents is really interesting…
- Be choosy with punctuation. Use as little as possible so that the eye can bound freely across the words. Definitely don’t put a full-stop at the end of a headline – ‘stopping’ is the last thing you want a potential reader to do.
- Watch out for hidden double meanings. One can only imagine that “Bishops agree sex abuse rules”, in The Sunday Business Review in April 2011, seemed like a good headline at the time…