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I am trying to give this meaning “they wanted fewer bugs, fewer blue screens, and fewer viruses.”, but with fewer words.

The first attempt “They wanted fewer bugs, blue screens, and viruses.”. Does not work. To me it reads “They wanted fewer bugs, they wanted blue screens, and they wanted viruses.”

Is it possible to punctuate so that it can be done without increasing the word count?

I can do it in speech. “They wanted fewer «long pause» bugs «short pause» blue screens «short pause» and viruses.”, but can't figure out the written form.

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    Your proposed change could be a bit confusing. Perhaps more appropriate would be “They wanted to reduce the number of bugs, blue screens, and viruses.” (You could substitute, eg, "occurrence" or "frequency" for "number".) – Hot Licks Mar 31 at 20:32
  • @HotLicks That is an answer. But could you be clearer on which proposed change. – ctrl-alt-delor Apr 1 at 7:16
  • I mean your "first attempt". – Hot Licks Apr 1 at 17:18
  • I don't see the original as ambiguous - unless anyone might think they wanted more viruses! – TrevorD May 1 at 15:24
  • @TrevorD Ah yes you see it. Did you auto-correct based on your knowledge of viruses, and what about blue screens? – ctrl-alt-delor May 2 at 9:35
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They wanted to reduce bugs, blue screens, and viruses.

They wanted to decrease the amount of bugs, blue screens, and viruses.

  • Your first suggestion is not grammatical: "wanted reduce bugs". Why is "blue screen" singular in both options - the second option sounds as if they wanted a smaller blue screen: "They wanted to decrease the amount of ... blue screen ..."! – TrevorD May 2 at 14:30
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I believe that reading that, I would infer "fewer" connecting to "blue screens" and "viruses," too. I believe that because that is exactly how I inferred it when I first read the sentence. That said, I do see how writing it that way could come across as ambiguous, exactly as you've explained. Grammar you could employ to maintain the present wording while also communicating that "few" extends to the entire list would be a colon, i.e.:

"They wanted fewer: bugs, blue screens, and viruses."

In oral speech, that "long pause" you say that you would make after "fewer" to intimate that it extended to the entire list, that would appear as a colon in writing.

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There are a few ways you could do this.

The simplest, and more natural sounding in both writing and colloquial speech (you shouldn't have to rely on long pauses), involves a slightly different choice of words:

They didn't want as many bugs, blue screens, or viruses.


You could also make more of a change to the first part of the sentence:

Those things they wanted less of were bugs, blue screens, and viruses.

But that's not quite as natural sounding as the first version.


If you want to preserve the writing as closely as possible to the original, and it doesn't matter if it's actually spoken or not (where it might not sound as natural), you can just add a few words and a colon:

They wanted fewer of some things: bugs, blue screens, and viruses.

Note that while this doesn't reduce the word count as much as your suggestion, it does avoid repetition as well as possible misinterpretation.

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