Monday, July 28, 2014

The difference between "few" and "a few"

It's one of the things that many non-native speakers of English get wrong: the distinction between few and a few. For example, let's take the following pair of sentences:
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were few signs that the final would include Germany.
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were a few signs that the final would include Germany.
What's the difference? While most native English speakers would immediately recognize the difference, to many English-language learners that I have encountered in the past, there is no discernible distinction. This could get them into a bit of a pickle in writing.

The simple explanation of the difference is that few means "almost zero" and is generally of a negating connotation, while in contrast a few means "a small amount, but definitely not zero" and is generally of a positive/additive connotation. Therefore, the above sentences would mean something like:
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were almost no signs that the final would include Germany. (i.e., It was unimaginable that Germany would make it to the final.)
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were some signs that the final would include Germany. (i.e., It was possible to think that Germany would make it to the final.)
As to why this distinction exists, it's partly because few is an adjective, while a few is a noun.

As an adjective, it implies that the expected value is vanishingly small. Therefore, if we initially had a high expectation that Brazil would reach the finals, the possibility that it wouldn't was approaching zero.

In contrast, as a noun, it implies that the actual amount was more than zero. Therefore, if we initially had an expectation that Germany would fail to go to the finals, our perception of that possibility would have been that it was greater than zero.

In reality, the number in question (e.g., the number of signs that Brazil wouldn't reach the finals) could be known or determined. The difference is how you interpret that number. For example, if we stated that the odds for making the finals of the 2014 World Cup stated on July 5, 2014 were:
Odds for World Cup semi-finals:
Brazil wins 80.09 %
Germany wins 19.91 %
Argentina wins 61.60 %
Netherlands wins 38.40 % 
It means that - on July 5th - there was an expected 19.91% chance that Germany would win their semi-final match to enter the finals against the winner of Argentina vs. Netherlands. This is almost a 1-in-5 chance that they would make it. And here is the crux in how our interpretations of the same number would change the meaning of the sentence.

If we had interpreted that 1-in-5 as a vanishingly small chance, then we'd use, "...there were few signs that the final would include Germany."

However, if we had interpreted that 1-in-5 as a distinct (if small) possibility, we'd use, "...there were a few signs that the final would include Germany."

... and that's basically it. Simple, no?

One additional note: The meanings for few and a few remain consistent when the thing your talking about is stated as a negative. For example:
There were few signs of Brazil not reaching the final.
Here, the direct implication is, "There were almost no signs of Brazil not reaching the final." After doing the trick in English of transforming two negatives into a positive, we have the implicitly understood interpretation of this statement as something like, "There were many signs that Brazil would reach the final." The use of a few leads to a contrasting sentence, similar to the examples using Germany:
There were a few signs of Brazil not reaching the final.
Here, the direct implication is, "There were some signs of Brazil not reaching the final," which is almost the direct opposite of the implication of the previous statement.

So, in short:

  • If you want to emphasize the near-zero quantity of something, use few.
  • If you want to emphasize the not-at-all-zero quantity of something, use a few.

Addendum: Of course, there is also the use of the few. However, as with most uses of the to convert an adjective into a noun (e.g., the elderly, the hungry, the poor, the tired, the wealthy, the powerful, etc.), it is referring to a distinct and defined (either implicitly or explicitly) group, usually of people. Thus we understand the recruiting phrase used by the US Marine Corps, "The few, the proud, the Marines," as referring to an implicit exclusivity that is associated with the culture of the US Marine Corps. Similarly, given the interchangeability of pronouns for articles, we can understand the following use of we few from the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
... and an excuse to post this lovely rendition of the St. Crispin's Day speech:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Units Conversions: Square feet to square meters

Apartments in Chile - as in much of the rest of the world - are measured in square meters. However, in the US, they are measured in square feet. Since people get really used to the meanings of various measurements, seeing (or hearing) the same thing measured in different units provokes a different response (or sometimes just a sense of puzzlement).

One such measurement is living area. In Ann Arbor, I lived in a ~800 sq. ft., single-room cabin in the woods. To others who use square feet to designate living area, this has an intrinsic "feel" to it. To people in Chile (and much of the rest of the world), this means ... not much.

Sure, you can make quick back-of-the-envelope calculations to say, "Well, 3 feet is roughly 1 meter," but that fails (utterly) to account for squaring. Without a quick-and-dirty conversion factor, in order for Chileans to understand how big that cabin was, they'd have to take the square root of 800 (28.284) and then divide it by 3 (9.428) and then square it (88.888), which is kind of difficult to do on the fly.

However, there is an easier way. Using the handy site,, one can find that 1 square meter is equal to 10.763910417 square feet. To change this to a handy back-of-the-envelope conversion factor, just multiply square meters by 11 or divide square feet by 11 (a handy trick might be to multiply square feet by 9 and then divide by 100).

Ergo: My 800 square-foot cabin in the woods is roughly (9*800)/100) = 72 square meters (plus a bit). The actual answer is closer to 74 square meters, but this conversion is far easier (and far more accurate) than the one presented above.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Units Conversions: Chilean Pesos/Liter of Gasoline to US Dollars/Gallon of Gasoline

Well, living in Chile - and expecting guests to visit from the US - means that there are many things to get accustomed to. Including measuring things differently. Since Chile - like most of the rest of the world - uses the metric system, and the US - like few places in the world - chooses to stick to an arcane system of weights and measures (with its citizenry either blissfully unaware of any different reality or loudly proclaiming anything different to be just plain weird), it is necessary - from time to time - to stop and recognize that visitors don't have the luxury of time to get accustomed to what a particular measured value means. Sure, sure, it's easy to use back-of-the-envelope conversions for simple, everyday things:

"One meter is a little longer than 3 feet."
"One kilogram is a little bigger than 2 pounds."
"One kilometer is a little more than 1/2 mile."
"One hundred kilometers per hour is roughly 60 mph."
"One liter is a little more than 2 pints."

Sure, they're only kind of correct, but it lets visitors from the US get a grasp on the kinds of weights and distances that are discussed, and for the day-to-day kinds of uses, this sort of calculation puts the results in the correct range at least. So when you're buying stuff at the store, you can make a quick conversion from kilograms to pounds; when you're looking at walking distances in the city, you can make a quick conversion from kilometers to miles; etc.

However, less common conversions don't necessarily have such easy rules of thumb. One such is the price of gasoline. If you are going to rent a car in Chile, you're likely going to want to know how much you're paying for gasoline. But while you might know that one liter is roughly 2 pints (and - by extension - there being 8 pints in a gallon, that 4 liters is somewhat more than 1 gallon), combining that knowledge with an exchange rate is not that simple. What would be great is a simple unit conversion.

Well, the exchange rate between the US Dollar (USD) and Chilean Peso (CLP) has been relatively stable at between 540 CLP/1 USD (or 0.001852 USD/CLP) and 565 CLP/1 USD (or 0.00177 USD/CLP). We can use this in the following unit-conversion:

USD/Gallon = CLP/Liter
USD/Gallon = CLP/Liter * 0.26417205236 Liters/Gallon * USD/CLP
USD/Gallon = 0.26417205236x CLP/Gallon * USD/CLP

(Using 0.00177 USD/CLP to be conservative:)

USD/Gallon = 0.26417205236x CLP/Gallon * 0.00177 USD/CLP
USD/Gallon = 149.2497x USD/Gallon
x = 0.0067

Or, to give it a nice back-of-the-envelope-calculation value:

"900 Chilean pesos/liter is roughly equivalent to $6/gallon."

And - given that gas prices in Chile are ~830 CLP/Liter (~$5.50/gallon) - this back-of-the-envelope conversion rate is kind of handy. (I did write about Chilean vs. US gasoline prices before; general trends haven't changed too much.) By the way, did you know that the price of gasoline in the US is the lowest among OECD countries and non-petrostates?

Next: Unit conversions of square area.

NOTE: For people familiar with UK pre-metric weights and measures, these numbers may seem to be a little off. Remember that these conversions are for people from the US, where liquid measures are slightly smaller than the those used in the UK pre-metric. In other words, people who refer to the US system of weights and measures as the "imperial system" are technically wrong. (Unless they mean to say that the "imperial" refers to the US empire, and not the British one.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Spanish apparently doesn't have an adverb for "write" either

Having studied - and used - Spanish for a while now, I recently returned to a question that stumped me a few years ago: what is the adverb of "write"? Does Spanish have an adverb for write?

First a short lesson in Spanish grammar. Adverbs are (for the most part) formed from adjectives by adding the suffix -mente, which means something along the lines of "in the thought of the thing" (being derived from mentis, the same Latin root from which English derives mental). Therefore, the Spanish equivalent of verbally is verbalmente (which is formed from the adjective verbal and the adverb-making suffix -mente).

In other words: verbalizar (to verbalize) U+2192.svg verbal (verbal) U+2192.svg verbalmente (verbally)

So I thought that all I need to do is determine the Spanish equivalent of "written" and just add "-mente" to get the Spanish adverb of "to write."

In other words: escribir (to write) U+2192.svg escrito/ta (written) U+2192.svg escritamente (adverb of write)

It seemed to easy. It seemed so simple. It seemed so obvious.

But escritamente doesn't exist. Unfortunately.

What's the solution? To do the equivalent thing as in English: use adverbial phrases.

Ergo: escribir (verb) U+2192.svg escrito/ta (adjective) U+2192.svg por escrito/ta (adverbial phrase).

How... deflating.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Being a "Grammarist" (Again)

A year ago, Conde Nast published an article titled, "10 Best Small Towns to Live in America". A friend of mine recently put a link to it on her Facebook page, which was the way in which I learned of its existence.

The first thought I had was, "Hmm... The title indicates that the story is about best small towns that are living in America, and not about the best small American towns in which to live." The verb to live can be used as part of a verb phrase (i.e., to live in) or independently (i.e., to live in America), but it cannot do both things at the same time. Therefore, the syntax of the title requires the interpretation of "10 best small towns to live in America," or - to repeat my thought - that the story is about best small towns that are living in America. Which is an awkward concept, unless you're writing a piece of fiction, in which small towns are conscious entities.

Furthermore, as an adjective, "best" indicates the ultimate of something; it has no superior (as opposed to adjectives ending with "-er" or adjective phrases using "more"; never mind the Hawai'ian patois use of "more better"). Thus it requires the use of "the." Saying that it's a headline would be a good excuse, save for the problem that the whole point of abbreviated headline grammar is due to the exigencies of space-saving; something that is next-to-unnecessary when publishing online. So, to make the minimal number of changes, the title ought to read:

"The 10 Best Small Towns to Live in in America."

True, this title is grammatically correct, but awkward due to two different uses to which "in" has been used: one as part of a verb phrase ("live in") and one as part of a prepositional phrase ("in America."). Furthermore, if you don't like verb phrase constructions (i.e., if you hold on to the 18th Century English grammarian's notion of "correct" grammar mimicking Latin/Romance grammar), then the easiest "fix" is to change the word order (and grammar) to make the sentence mimic a Romance-language construction, thusly:

"The 10 Best Small Towns in which to Live in America."


"The 10 Best Small Towns in America in which to Live."

Of course, either of these constructions is rather awkward to the modern American reader, for whom the use of phrases like "in which" are dying (much like the distinction between who and whom). Therefore, another editing option would be to change the verb phrase (to live) for a single verb that has the same (or very similar) meaning and doesn't rely on being a verb phrase in order to hold that same meaning (I prefer "inhabit" among all the options):

"The 10 Best Small Towns to Inhabit in America."

Well, upon reflection, that just sounds awkward for a whole different reason: inherent meaning. While to inhabit and to live in do mean effectively the same thing, the feelings evoked by the words are different. To quote Winston Churchill - as quoted in by Romm in Language Intelligence - "All the speeches of great English rhetoricians ... display a uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage." The same is true with catchy headlines, I suppose.

Ergo, whilst it may behoove the author to adhere to appropriate grammar structure and diction whilst composing, a successful application of such adherence would obfuscate their topics of dissertation from those who desire to acquire the insights of said author. Or - to put it another way - don't be fancy when you don't have to be. So maybe a better title could be something like:

"10 Great American Small Towns to Live In."