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Still Another Three Words Many Writers Misuse

Differences between "Can" and "May," "Less" and "Fewer," "Hone" and "Home"

“hone,” “less,” and “can,” when they mean “home,” “fewer,” and “may.”


“Hone” means to sharpen, so it’s natural for us to use it when we mean to sharpen our focus or move closer to a precise point. But that would be incorrect. As we narrow our search, we “home” in.

Scientists have honed homed in on how statins affect the risk of individual malignancies.

Tip: Used correctly, “hone” will never be followed by the preposition “in.”

“Less” refers to the measurement of something that cannot be separated, like shade. “Fewer” refers to discrete items, like trees. I don’t know how much Ford pays its ad agency, but the following appeared across the middle of a full-page advertisement for the new Ford Escape Hybrid:

That means less fewer trips to the gas station.

Tip: If you can count the items, use “fewer.”

A friend from the Midwest remembers frequently asking his mother, “C’n I go out and play?” And his mother just as frequently responding, “You can and you may.” You are able and you have my permission. Legislators should listen to Mom; they often construct rules and regulations to say a citizen does not have the ability to violate them, when they mean the citizen does not have permission to violate them.

Disciplinary rules are mandatory and state the minimum level of conduct below which no practitioner can may fall without being disciplined.

Even major newspapers get this wrong:

A public law school in California can may deny recognition to a Christian student group that refused to accept gay members, the Supreme Court ruled.

Tip: This usage problem is so prevalent, and so easy to overlook, I would do a word search to check every “can.”

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.

WordRake takes you beyond the merely grammatical to the truly great—the quality editor you’ve always wanted. See for yourself.

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How Does it Work?

WordRake is editing software designed by writing expert and New York Times bestselling author Gary Kinder. Like an editor or helpful colleague, WordRake ripples through your document checking for needless words and cumbersome phrases. Its complex algorithms find and improve weak lead-ins, confusing language, and high-level grammar and usage slips.

WordRake runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggestions appear in the familiar track-changes style. If you’ve used track changes, you already know how to use WordRake. There’s nothing to learn and nothing to interpret. Editing for clarity and brevity has never been easier.