Usage and Grammar

Q. I work with middle-school students who produce a yearbook. Does it matter what tense they write in? There appear to be two views: past tense, because the events have passed and the kids are no longer in the mentioned year, and present tense, because past tense can simply seem weird. (For instance, writing about the school’s mascot—a live Labrador—in past tense seems morbid.) Still, most students like the notion of writing in the past tense, as it suggests they’ve moved to the next grade.

Q. Can I use the first person?

Q. “Between” vs. “among.” I’m going insane. I think the editor who changed my wording is just clueless or hasn’t given the issue enough thought. Please help. I’ve read the advice in CMOS, Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and a few other sources, but I can’t decide. Should I say “competition between companies” or “competition among companies”? They’re competing with each other, severally and individually. At least, that’s what I think. Or is “among” justified on the grounds that competition implies vague, intricate relationships? Do I need an economist to clear this usage question up? Are there right and wrong answers in this case? The phrase is “competition between/among companies is intensifying.”

Q. Which of the following is correct? “Canadian customers, call 1-800-etc.,” or “Canada customers, call 1-800-etc.”? I’m inclined toward the former, but keep thinking about that darn Canada goose.

Q. I’m editing a report for an author who wrote, “a comparison between the Soviet and the U.S.-led intervention.” I changed the singular to “interventions.” He questioned whether the plural was correct, as “there was only one Soviet and one U.S.-led intervention.” Will you intervene in our tiff and set us straight?

Q. Can “fewest” mean zero? Example: Which desk has the fewest number of books? If one desk has no books, does that desk contain the fewest? Or must “fewest” refer to a number (however small) that is greater than zero?

Q. One of my authors uses “as noted by” and “as is noted by” frequently. I assume they are the same. However, my copyeditor changes some of the “as is noted by” to “as noted by” but not all of them. Are there differences between the two phrases? I read the sentences over and over again, and I can’t see the difference in meaning before and after the change. If there is no difference in meaning, why change it?

Q. I have a friend who insists the use of the word “littler” is acceptable because it’s in the dictionary. I searched through CMOS but found no mention. What is your position on the use of this word?

Q. Editor’s update: Last month two questions arrived a few hours apart, from two different people, each asking whether the day of the month is capped when spelled out, and both used the second of January as the example. We hoped to learn whether the writers were acquainted and had written independently to settle a dispute, or whether the nearly identical queries were simply a romantic coincidence on the part of writers unknown to each other.

Q. Grammarians Strunk and White say in their book, The Elements of Style, that you shouldn’t start a sentence with “however” when you mean “nevertheless.” I think this classic advice is unreasonable in modern times. What’s your take?