When our son Josh was in the eighth grade, he came home from school one afternoon with his report card. “How’d you do?” I asked. He hung his head for a moment and then said, “I got six ‘A’s and one grade I need to talk to you about.” While I really would have preferred to focus on the six stellar assessments, I told him to proceed with his tale of woe, which was that he’d gotten an “F” in English. “How could you fail English?!” my wife protested. I advocated for a calmer response, suggesting perhaps his intention was to replace mastery of his native tongue with proficiency in a new language. Carol looked at me, not saying a word but with a glance that spoke volumes, then turned her attention back to Josh and again demanded, “How could you fail English?!” I was hopeful that Josh would demonstrate his mastery of, perhaps, French, and explain to his mère that he understood she had just issued a plaintive cri de coeur, but une seule langue n’est jamais suffisante.


That did not prove to be the case. Josh received the failing grade because he didn’t turn in a project about common grammatical and spelling errors. The sidebar here is that I met with his teacher and convinced her to let him hand in the assignment late, and she in return would adjust his grade for the semester to a minimally-passing “D” as long as he met all the report’s requirements. He did, and she did, and that’s the closest our son ever came to getting straight As in his entire academic career.

The reason I relate this tale is to lead into a discussion of some of those sticking points of grammar that he (meaning, “Me, standing over him with a whip in one hand and sharpened stick in the other”) included in his finished paper. Even though this incident happened years ago, I continue to see people making these same mistakes. While I recently called my senator to strongly express my objection to Betsy DeVos becoming Secretary of Education (hashtag resist), if she can get our children (or even just our President) to understand the difference between “lose” and “loose,” I’ll continue to protest her appointment but will no longer drop any f-bombs while doing so.


Here are some of those grammatical conundrums from Josh’s long-ago assignment, and my current-day attempts at un-drumming them:

➤ What is the difference between less and fewer?

  • Use “fewer” when describing something you can count (example: “Beyoncé’s masterful 2016 album Lemonade won fewer Grammys than Adele’s treacly 25.”); use “less” when describing something you can’t count (example: “I think even less of Metallica after seeing them perform with Lady Gaga.”). However, there are several exceptions to that rule, with this being among the most notable: 
    • How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” If you were able to count the ways but only got up to one (especially if that one was, “I love it when you leave me alone.“), you should say, “Hmm… I guess I love thee less than I thought.

➤ When should I use their versus there?

  • The good news is you can use them interchangeably in the same sentence, as long as you are trying to console someone:
    • Their there, son. We still love thee, even if you failed English. Just a little less than we used to.”

    ➤ Does it matter if I use your instead of you’re? 

    • Hell yes! “Your” is a possessive pronoun and is used when pairing an owner and object. “You’re” means “you are,” and is the pairing of a noun and verb. People get these mixed up, writing things like, “After a report card like that, your no child of mine,” and, “Go talk to you’re mère because I want nothing more to do with you right now.” 
    • “You’re” is properly referred to as a contraction, and that’s where the confusion comes from. When Carol was in labor with Josh, the doctor wanted to know how close together the contractions were. I asked him to clarify his question, since “you’ll” and “you’re” are much closer together in the dictionary than, say, “aren’t” and “weren’t.” 
    • I also berated him for pelting us with grammatical questions when we were their to have a baby. After that, we saw a lot less of him.


    Josh did go on to study French in high school, and as a result knows most of the major swear words en français, along with slang for certain body parts. I know this because I’ve heard him express himself thusly over the years. You know what they say about the study of language: Use it or loose it.