Saturday, June 26, 2010

Greater Less Fewer More Thans--More or Less

As a technical writer and grammarian, I run across all sorts of grammatical anomalies. The type I've posted about today pertains to apparently comparative terms "greater than", "less than", and "fewer than". Also belonging to the topic is "more than", more or less.

A particular mathisfun page typifies sites that show mathematical terms and symbols "greater than" (">") and "less than" ("<"). To me, these terms are not exactly antonymous. To me, "great" implies more a subjective word than "more". Thus, if I were advocating appropriate terms, I would say "more" or "less". "Greatness", the noun related to the adjective forms of "great", connotes positiveness, something subjective, maybe emotional. "More than" seems more suitable to indicate comparative quantity than "greater than". With this train of thought, it would seem the antonymous term to "greater than" could be "awfuller than".

This brings me to the point about "less" vs. "fewer". I believe the default term in mathematics courses—"less than"—has overshadowed the correct usage of "fewer than" in non-mathematical-course situations. The problem in the context of grammar is applying "less than" to integer quantities. Put another way, if something can be counted as an integer, the reference term should be "fewer than", not "less than". The prominent example is the sign at express lanes in a grocery store. When first established, the expression tended to be "[n] or less items". Over the years, I had noticed some stores replacing "less" with "fewer".

These days, I glance only to see the number for restrictions. Weird Al, a song parodist who coincidentally has a bachelor's degree in architecture, is strong in both left-brainedness and right-brainedness. His grammar lesson YouTube video strikes a blow for grammatical correctness where he modifies a sign that says "15 ITEMS OR LESS". He attaches "FEWER" on top of "LESS".

The other day, I encountered a YouTube video that highlights my snit about "less than"—even more so than usual. At 1:19, the following lyrics appear: "Point being, in short, less annoyances and more awesomeness." Wow. Anyway, I think I understand why mathematicians retain "less than", as the number specified can be a non-integer. As a grammarian, I'd prefer mathematicians and similar-discipline professionals be more cognizant of the difference between "less than" and "fewer than".

As my article has "more or less" in the title, I should mention it in the article itself, though the segueing might be somewhat odd. An example of using the phrase "more or less" could be with regard to purchasing an article of clothing that was suitable for style, color, fabric, and price. I can't say my selection jumped out as a must-have item. The price was so-so but not great. It was a decent buy, more or less. :-)

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Convenient Veggie Lentil Soup

My veggie lentil soup is about as convenient as can be—three or four ingredients, depending on whether the fluid is all water or part water and part soup stock/reconstituted bouillon. Make no bones about it. Well, you can if you want. You can also further increase work time by buying, washing, peeling, and cutting up fresh vegetables. I title each of my recipe articles as "A Convenient" something or another because I emphasize convenience, mostly in minimizing the number of different ingredients. The table below lists the four options; the pixstrip above provides visual aids.
Ingredient/Recipe-size Options
Full Half
Image in pixstrip 1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Dry veggie soup, 0.9 oz packet 2 1 1 1
Lentils, 16-oz. bag 1 1 1/2 1/2
Water 8C 4C 4C 2 1/2 C
Soup stock/reconstituted bouillon 4C 1 1/2 C
Minimum number of servings 8 8 4 4
  1. Pick the recipe option you want to try.
  2. Set out the equipment you'll need. (The pixstrip images show the equipment you should have.)
  3. Rinse the lentils as instructed on the package.
  4. Put the ingredients into a large pot.
  5. Heat the ingredients until they come to a rolling boil.
  6. Turn the heat down to simmer.
  7. Go do something else for about a half hour or so.
  8. When you return,
    • Check a lentil or two for the tenderness you want. Add more simmer time if necessary.
    • Taste for seasoning preference. Add more seasoning as you want.
    • If the soup's thicker than you want, add more fluid.
Note: I understated the amount of seasoning needed. It's easier to add more flavoring later than adjust for overseasoning.

November 16, 2015 (update)
If you want to use fresh veggies instead of veggie soup mix, visit "Sliced-Veggie Lentil Soup".

Thursday, June 10, 2010


This year, I used SurveyMonkey for the first time. Some people in my professional writing organization (STC, Society for Technical Communication) had ushered in its usage a few years ago for the annual salary survey for the area. The version we subscribe to is Unlimited. (The free version allows only 10 questions and up to 100 responses.) The pricing page shows a page of features for Free, Pro, and Unlimited. Except for the billing commitment, there appears to be scant difference between Pro and Unlimited.

In February, I finally dived into using the tool when my request (plea?) for a volunteer to conduct the survey yielded a few polite declines. I logged into our SurveyMonkey's account to see what was there. Fortunately, I did receive a guideline document; otherwise I would have been totally lost. In any case, SurveyMonkey's online help was extremely helpful. I felt the tool itself was extremely well-designed and user friendly—a lot of intuitiveness built in for the intermediate tool user. There were ways to clone surveys, copy questions, move questions, select answer options, …. There are expansive explanations of all the features.

At SurveyMonkey's Design Survey section, I navigated a prototype survey and explored response types. I checked out behaviors for multiple choice (check-all-that-apply), single-selection of multiple options ("radio button", dropdown listbox), and open-end answers ("other", fill-in). There were options for presenting possible responses horizontally, vertically, and grid configuration. The advantage for an x-by-y matrix is saving vertical space.

Another response setup that saved vertical space was using the dropdown listbox for single-selection of multiple options, if there were at least four response possibilities. If fewer than four, there was virtually no vertical space savings. For few-answer-option questions, I felt it was more user friendly that all possible answers were visible at the same time.

Why did I concern myself with vertical space? I wanted to present a survey that appeared to be shorter than if all answer possibilities made it visually long. I sensed an overly long survey might fatigue the participants and maybe decrease the chances they would take or complete the survey. Putting some response possibilities in grids and some others in dropdown listboxes required less vertical space for the entire survey than listing line-by-line selections.

After setting up the survey in March, I sent a dry-run version to the board using the Collect Responses feature, then did a cursory analysis using Analyze Results. After minor tweaking, I set up the survey for the public and launched it in early April, sending out several emails over about three weeks requesting participation from technical communicators.

After I finished collecting the data, having set a shut-off date in SurveyMonkey, I moved to the data analysis stage. At the Analyze Results section, I re-acquainted myself with graph types and appropriate uses. The graphs I used were pie, column, and line. Later, when I presented the results, I concluded that in some instances, bar graphs would have better conveyed information than column graphs. But there needs to be judicious use and consistency for bars rather than columns—the biggest reason being if the column charts showed vertically rotated text.

SurveyMonkey's graphing options were actually fun. At the Create Chart option, the following choices were available:

  • Chart shape/type
  • Number of answer choices to show
  • Sort by answer quantity
  • Show or hide a chart title, the default text being the question itself
  • Labels for response number, percent, both, or none
  • Location of the labels, inside or outside the graphic

Clicking Download Chart created the chart. Right-clicking the selection to create the chart in a new window was effective. If I wanted to vary my selections, it was easy to return to the Create Chart option and try something else. On the other hand, I found that SurveyMonkey's graphing capability lacking with regard to answers to open-ended questions. To make suitable graphs for those responses, I used Excel formulas.

In May, I presented the salary results to the STC Austin chapter meeting. My presentation showed a hybrid of a few updated parts from the previous year's presentation, but mostly graphs of each question's responses for this year. I handed out hardcopies of the report that reflected mainly a subset of responses—those pertaining to salaried, full-time technical communicators.

During the week after my presentation, I created a supplement document that went into detail about the questions that required "other" responses and fill-ins. I also wrote about survey design changes from the previous year and specific areas for possible future handling of some questions. All three survey documents—report, presentation, supplement—are available at

Conducting this year's salary survey was eye-opening for methodology, learning SurveyMonkey, writeups, and coming up ways for improving the 2011 version. I have listed some survey resources below:

Excel formulas I used are as follows:

=MIN([cellposition1]:[cellposition2]) <- lowest value

=Quartile([cellposition1]:[cellposition2], 1) <- 1st quartile, aka 25th percentile

=AVERAGE([cellposition1]:[cellposition2]) <- mean

=MEDIAN([cellposition1]:[cellposition2]) <- median, midpoint, aka 50th percentile, also calculable using 2nd quartile

=Quartile([cellposition1]:[cellposition2], 3) <- 3rd quartile, aka 75th percentile

=MAX([cellposition1]:[cellposition2]) <- highest value

=COUNT([cellposition1]:[cellposition2]) <- quantity of responses