Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fewer or less: which is correct

When I see misuse of this, it makes me crazy, for some reason. The worst offenders are the ones who are trying to be meticulously correct and impose "fewer" in places where "less" is really the appropriate word.

Newspaper copy editors have come up with rigid rules of usage that lead people to abominations such as this one from the Wall Street Journal:

Fewer than three years later, Mr. Slim earned more than $500 million in profit when Verizon Communications Inc. bought the carrier...
Ugh! I can just hear the Wall Street Journal´s copy editor saying, "You should use 'fewer' with things that can be counted."  The editor would be right in saying that years can be counted but would be wrong in applying the logic to this phrase.  Three years is a single measure of time, a unit, not a series of three discrete units. 

It should be, "Less than three years ago..."  

Here´s another abomination, from a story about Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt:
It took him fewer than 10 seconds to run 100 meters but at least 10 minutes to complete his victory lap. 
Again, 10 seconds is a period of time, a single period of time, not 10 individual units.  

It should be, "less than 10 seconds".  "Fewer" doesn´t even sound right. Again, the editor is applying the rule of countable units inappropriately. 

Here is another, from the New York Times:
An $11 fare to drive a passenger fewer than four miles was all D.Y. Kim had to show for his morning's labors.
Four miles is a distance, and in the context of the story is meant to signify a single unit of measure, not four. 

It should be, "less than four miles."
Here are some examples of correct usage:
Less than 1 million barrels of oil spilled from the tanker. Correct

There was more than 3 feet of snow on the ground. Correct. 

The robbers took less than $50 from the till. Correct

After the storm, the farmer had less than 10 acres of corn available for harvest. Correct

The bridge has clearance for vehicles less than 8 feet high. Correct 

I´ve visited the online AP Stylebook and reviewed its "Ask the Editor" section, where people seek advice on how to apply this rule. Most of the time, the editor applies a fierce kind of logic that results in bad advice being given. Here´s an example:

Do percentages count as numbers or amounts? In other words, is it: "Fewer than 3 percent of the country's stores..." or "Less than 3 percent of the country's stores..." – from Los Angeles on Mon, Oct 08, 2007
Editor's reply: The example seems to refer to individual stores, so fewer would be correct.
I could not disagree more. In this case, 3 percent is an amount, a quantity, a single measure, not a series of three countable units. With editors giving advice like that, it is no wonder that the abominations continue to proliferate.

As I learn every day in my struggles to speak perfect Spanish, language resists logic.  For every grammar rule that exists, there are other rules that countermand it.  We need fewer editors sticking to the logic of a single grammar rule, and more understanding the context of the rule.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Some indicators of corruption

Yesterday I was reading Mural, one of the better local dailies (there are five here), and I came upon this startling statistic: In the past 18 years, Mexico´s Secretary of Public Affairs has levied $3.3 billion dollars in fines (that´s correct, 40 billion pesos, or $3.3 billion dollars) against government officials for corruption.

That amounts to about $190 million dollars in fines a year against corrupt officials.

But the government has actually collected less than 1% of those fines. Why is the collection rate so bad? According to the article, the appeals process can be dragged out indefinitely, and, if it appears there will be a final resolution against the appelant in the case, he merely unloads all his assets so the fine can´t be collected. Perfectly legal.

Unbid contracts represent 97% of the total

On the same front page was a story about the handling of public contracts under the mayor of Guadalajara, Aristóteles Sandoval, who was recently elected on an anti-corruption platform.

As it turns out, the new regime has a worse record than the previous one in terms of awarding contracts not subject to a public bidding process. Under Sandoval, direct contract awards, made by the head of public works, represent 70% of total contracts, and another 27% are awarded to invited bidders.

Evidently the rules that require public bidding are open to interpretation. Juan Carlos Uranga, secretary of public works, says he alone decides who gets contract awards and who gets invited to make proposals for these unbid contracts. "And there is nothing untoward about it," he says.

The previous administration had 13% of contracts open to public bid, compared to this administration´s 3%.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Low pay, little opportunity here

An article in the local paper said the highest paid college graduates are those who study civil engineering (construction of highways, water systems, etc.). A new graduate can expect to make $10,700 a year.

Other recent graduates:
-- Marketing, $8,300 a year
-- Computing, $7,700
-- Elementary school teacher, $5,000
-- Law, $4,000
-- Accountant (bookkeeper might be a better description), $4,000

There aren´t a lot of jobs being created here outside of the government or political parties.

At every busy intersection you find people selling stuff to motorists -- toys, windshield wipers, candy, bug zappers, TV trays, you name it.

Many adult males are "cuidacoches", a type of informal valet parker who helps motorists find a parking spot or pull out of one, and offers to clean your car while you shop, for anywhere from $2.50 to $10. If you´re just getting help with parking, it´s considered polite to pay 5 pesos, or about 40 cents.

There are some beggars, mostly old women in country dress or very young women with babies.

Mexico is cheaper than the U.S. for many things but it´s not cheap to live here. I don´t know how many people keep body and soul together.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Elegant Dead: Mexico´s catrina tradition

An ecologically conscious "catrina" with a skirt made of garbage bags.

Mexico´s Day of the Dead celebration is a mix of indigenous and Spanish cultural traditions, and in Guadalajara this year, it meant that the main street was lined with "catrinas".

The elegantly dressed skeletons (a "catrina" is an elegant woman) were designed by high school and college students and had a variety of themes.

A catrina in native dress captured an admirer.

The goddess of Death and the depiction of skulls go back thousands of years in Mesoamerican culture. There is an Aztec altar composed of hundreds of images of skulls (calaveras) in the heart of Mexico City, next to the main cathedral. Little sweets made in the shapes of skulls, called calaveritas, are part of the modern observance.

But the catrina tradition was made popular in the last century by a Mexican artist and caricaturist.

This catrina is outfitted in handkerchiefs.

The Goddess of Death is condemned by the Catholic Church but is worshiped by the lower classes and by narcotraffickers, who set up shrines to her.

Even young men want to pose with a catrina.

Some of the best catrinas were set up in the square around the cathedral so families out for a Sunday stroll could appreciate them.

The elegant dead like to garden....

...and to play with puppets.