One of the disadvantages of such a rich language as English is the number of words with subtly different meanings. They must be treated with care and used appropriately. It isn’t fussy or ridiculous to be particular about how we use words – they are our tools, and the right tools used for the right job will create a masterpiece, whereas the wrong tools badly used will only make a confusing mess.
Have a look at these pairs of words:
amid / among; round / around; number / amount; less / fewer; like / as / as if
Some of these are misused every day in speech, on the radio, in printed matter, and on the TV. Perhaps people think it doesn’t matter – they tell us language is always evolving – but it would be sad indeed if it became poorer and weaker rather than richer and more subtle.
I will spare you the rant which one or two of these provoke in me whenever they appear in TV adverts, and set out their differences.
Among (and amongst) should be used for things which can be separated out and counted, whereas amid (and amidst) refers to what cannot be separated out. So you would search for someone among the trees but amidst the rubble. The problem here is that amid is a word which is vanishing – I would guess these days many people might not know it at all. But, what the heck, use it anyway and enrich your readers’ understanding.
Round is used for anything which resembles or moves as if part of a circle, whereas around can wander in any direction, here and there, backwards and forwards. A man might turn round and then look around the room, before going outside to wander around the town, and in the course of his walk go round many corners.
Number is another word which is disappearing at an astonishing rate. It should also be used for everything which can be counted. Amount is for stuff which is impossible to count. So there were a large number of people at the meal, but there was only a small amount of soup left in the pot. Salt, sugar and sand, come in varying amounts; people, cars, towns and cities come in numbers.
Less is for stuff that cannot be counted (there’s a pattern developing here!), whereas few/er is for what can be counted. So if you’re on a diet you want food with less fat and fewer calories. In a moment of crisis your hero might find himself with few options, but if he makes the right choice he’ll be in less danger.
Like is becoming one of my most hated words. We’ll ignore its use in speech, where it’s become a verbal comma, and look at its use in writing. It should be used for comparisons, which is why it’s taught as a clue word to similes. On the other hand as / as if (which has almost entirely vanished) should be used in connection with a possible future activity. So this winter has been like no other, and it looks as if it will continue to rain for some time. She ran like an athlete; she ran as if her life depended on it.
This last one is harder than the others, which may be why it’s been abandoned sooner, but I believe it’s still worth working to save the as and as if.
(Like has other complications, dealt with in the book mentioned below.)
Bill Bryson has written a book entitled Troublesome Words (Penguin 1987). It’s aimed at newspaper and magazine writers and editors, but it’s a great tool for sorting out what to do with the words which so often confuse us. If you can find a copy add it to your toolbox, it’s both amusing and instructive.