Better Language Through Unicorns, Part 5: Odds and Ends

This week we’re catching up some loose ends, including homophones I forgot about a couple weeks ago, phrases that sound OK when you say them out loud but look (and are) horrendously wrong written down the way they sound, and other random but common grammar mistakes.

Baited vs. Bated Breath

This is another one that makes me giggle when people mix it up, because the mental image is just atrocious. Baited is a way to describe a fishhook or trap. Unless your heroine has severe halitosis, please stick with bated breath, since bated means restrained, as in holding one’s breath. (While we’re on the subject, also remember that breath is a noun and breathe is a verb.)

  • I’m waiting with bated breath to see the unicorn parade! 

Roll vs. Role

There are a whole heck of a lot of phrases that use roll, but role model isn’t one of them. Basically, if you’re talking about a part for an actor or a metaphorical function, use role; if you want to reference a tumbling motion, coiled or round object, list of participants, or bread product, use roll.

  • Sir Sparklyhorn will be playing the lead role in tonight’s performance. He’s such a role model for the new actors in the company! Now, as soon as we do the roll call and make sure everyone is here, we need to roll out the red carpet to welcome him.

Precede vs. Proceed

These can be pronounced almost identically, so it’s no surprise that they can get mixed up when writing. Unfortunately, they have completely opposite meanings. Precede refers to something that happened before, while proceed means to move forward or go on. Also, when talking about an event or legal actions, the correct related word is proceedings; there isn’t an equivalent noun form of precede, though preceding can be used as an adjective.

  • We hope you enjoyed the preceding entertainments. Please direct your attention to center stage; we will proceed with the main event, Unicorns on Ice, momentarily. These proceedings were made possible through a generous donation by the king.

All of a Sudden vs. All of the Sudden

This is one where talking fast can get people into trouble. While it may sound like there’s a the in there somewhere, the correct phrase is all of a sudden.

  • I was gazing out at the mountains when all of a sudden, a herd of unicorns ran by!

Could/Should/Would Have vs. Of

Have. A million times have. I fully admit that I don’t always enunciate it that way, but grammatically, you need an auxiliary verb here, not a preposition. (I don’t care if you write coulda, but please not could of.)

  • I could have sworn we’d be able to see the unicorns from here! I guess I should have checked the map more carefully.

A Lot vs. Alot

By now everyone knows about the Alot, right?

The Alot, a cartoon figure that looks like  a cross between a bear, a yak and a pug.
Image credit: Hyperbole and a Half

Cute critter, but not a real word. Always use a lot.

  • We saw a lot of unicorns today!

Than vs. Then

Than is a word of comparison or choice, common in phrases like more thanrather than, and better thanThen indicates a period or sequence of time and also appears in phrases like then again.

  • We were supposed to leave to go see the unicorns more than an hour ago, but then we had car trouble and got delayed. We aren’t going to get to spend as much time there as we hoped, but then again, better late than never!

Number of vs. Amount of

Generally speaking, number is used to talk about a quantity that can be counted, while amount is used with more vague concepts. There can sometimes be a little wiggle room to use amount with particularly cohesive groups or money (see the usage note), but number is still technically more correct.

  • A huge number of people came to see the unicorns today. The amount of enjoyment they’re getting is palpable.

Less vs. Fewer

The rules here tie right in to the number/amount rules, though I admit to looking them up to be sure. Fewer is used pretty much exclusively with plural nouns to indicate a smaller number of items, while less indicates a smaller amount of an unquantifiable concept or noun that refers to a group without being pluralized. You should also use less than with a number that stands alone or with concepts like time, distance, and money.

  • Fewer unicorns came to the fence today to greet the visitors; there were less than 10 and they stayed out for less than 20 minutes. Hopefully tomorrow there’ll be less rain so the rest of the herd won’t want to stay under shelter. 

Farther vs. Further

I should have put these on the list of mistakes I don’t care about, because I can’t keep them straight half the time. Fortunately, even sticklers are pretty lenient about them! You should always use farther with actual measurable distances and further with more metaphorical concepts, but when the lines are blurry, just pick one.

  • The unicorns are farther away today; yesterday they were in the field right here. It’s further evidence that they don’t appreciate being a tourist attraction.

We’ll be back next week to finish up the series by tackling phrases borrowed from other languages. The previous installments are available below:

Note: This is for personal edification and entertainment only. Don’t be a dick about people who misuse these or any other words, especially on the internet — you have no way of knowing if they have a learning disability, made a simple typo, or just got screwed by autocorrect.

(Unless they’re making these mistakes while ranting about how everyone needs to speak English in ‘merica or are otherwise being an ignorant hypocrite about language usage. Then you have my permission to tell them how very wrong they are on all levels. With gusto. Make the unicorns proud!)

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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