Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sports and Words

The U. S. football season has begun, and this annual passage has motivated me to note it today and make some observations. I have started to pay more attention to the announcers who are heard during the games. Announcers do great jobs given what most would see as herculean tasks—work live on television or radio or at a high school announcer’s booth for three to four hours describing to the viewers or listeners what is happening and trying to do it without error and within seconds; I applaud these men and women for their skill, aptitude, and tenacity.

So today’s post is more about some of the language missteps they and others occasionally make when describing plays, giving statistics, and making on-air predictions. Those of us not in the sports industry make these same mistakes in other areas of our personal or professional lives as we communicate, so the following observations apply to us as well; this is not a condemnation of sports officials or anyone else. My focus is on the areas of quantity, distance, and comparison.


Fewer vs. Less. “Fewer” refers to things that one can count or quantify, while “less” deals with uncountable, intangible, or abstract things.

There are fewer players (not less players) on a basketball team than on a football team. Some footballs have less air in them than others, and the ones with less air have fewer pounds of air. The losing team will score fewer points than the winning team; as a result, the losing team may have less of a chance to win the championship. A football game usually lasts fewer than four hours, and it certainly lasts less than a day.

Number vs. Amount. “Number” refers to countable things; “amount” is about all things uncountable. The:

- number of days in the week
- number of seats in a football stadium
- number of fans in attendance at today’s game
- number of players on a team
- number of passes in a game
- total number of points scored in the season
- number of beverage coolers used during a game
- tremendous amount of the fans’ enthusiasm
- huge amount of pressure on the coach to have a winning season
- high amount of confidence one team has over its opponent
- large amount of liquids drunk by the players during the game


Farther vs. Further. Think of “farther” as a physical distance; remember that and you’ll be ok. “Further” is used when talking about nonphysical or figurative distances, or when meaning “additional.”  

Team A’s quarterback throws passes that are longer and farther downfield than does his counterpart on Team B. The coach tells his players that they have to do more work each week if the team is to further its chances to enter the playoffs. Do your daily drills, and you’ll run farther faster; and furthermore, you’ll be appreciated by a greater number of fans who will have huge amounts of loyalty.


Good, Better, and Best; and Great, Greater, and Greatest. Usually good and great stand by themselves, as in “This company is great. That product is good. This football season is going to be great.” Kick it up a notch when comparing something with one other thing, as in “our company is greater than his, that product is greater than its predecessor, or our kicker is better than theirs.”

The superlatives “best” and “greatest” are used when comparing one thing against two or more other things: this season will be the best and greatest of all seasons in the past twenty years. Our team is the best in its division.

Note that when comparing things, always indicate to what they are being compared. It’s confusing to a listener or reader when someone says “that punter is better” or “that punter is the best.” Better than who? The best of what?

Than vs. Then. “Than” is the comparative word, and “then” is related to time.

This quarterback can probably throw the ball farther than the fullback can throw it. A quarterback takes the ball and then he throws it, tosses it, runs with it, or fumbles it. If a team is winning by 30 points in the final minute of a game, then it will win the game because it is playing so much better than the other team.

Between vs. Among. These words aren’t really comparisons (they’re prepositions), but I am going to mention them anyway. Use the word “between” when referring to two things, and use “among” when three or more things are involved.

After the player fumbles the football, we watch a private conversation between the coach and the player. During said conversation, there is some tension among the other players on the team. If fans had to choose between two players to be the player of the game, then they would choose the receiver, because he caught a record-shattering number of passes. However, among the remaining forty or so players on the team, all of them are great players, though it is difficult to say who are among the greatest.

Thanks for your time today, and I wish you a great upcoming week.

Randall Ponder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA     @randallponder

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Male-Female and Woman-Man

Although we are 14 months away from the election of a new president of the United States, many people are anticipating the election with enthusiasm, including those associated with the election who are using grandiose and hyperbolic words to describe the candidates and their promises. I’ve heard the following statement or a variation of it dozens of times in the past year: “We are ready to elect the first woman president of the United States.” The country may be ready for her to win, but I am not ready to accept language misuse over the next year to get her elected. So, we have the topic of today’s post.

In my opinion, the correct sentence should read: “We are ready to elect the first female president…” The words “male” and “female” are adjectives for a reason (they can also be used as nouns, as shown later), and they should be used as adjectives when obvious. Here are some correct but nuanced examples:

- female shoes, woman’s shoes, or women’s shoes (not woman shoes or women shoes)
- male slacks, man’s slacks, or men’s slacks (not man slacks or men slacks)
- female principal (not woman principal)  

Consider these other correct examples:

- The next president will be a woman who will have a male or female vice president.
- Our current president is a man who has a female Attorney General of the United States.
- I wear shoes that are made for a man, not for a woman.

A good way to catch mistakes in this gender-centric area is to think about the statement to see if it sounds right. If it sounds right, then it probably is. But as we have seen, many journalists, candidates, and others think that “a woman president” or a “woman doctor” sounds right and is perfectly correct; I understand, and this is their opinion. This debate is not new, and it has been talked about for years in references to non-presidential settings because it singles out women, rightly or wrongly. According to professional grammarians, language constantly evolves and exceptions are made. Some will disagree with my opinion on this topic, and one day these may all be acceptable phrases—but as of now, it is not a correct usage that’s widely accepted. As a society, we are not gender neutral (rightly or wrongly), and until that time arrives, my suggestion is to stick to the rules as much as you can or be as neutral as you can. Possibly, we can quit referring to people as a “male this” or a “female that.” How about just indicate their profession or situation without the adjective?

Thanks for tuning in, and for all of you who are reading today’s post, I hope your favorite candidates—man or woman, female or male—win in the many elections next year. But I must predict, however, that the next president will not be a man president nor will she be a woman president. Sorry.

Randall Ponder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA     @randallponder