ExxonMobil and fewer greenhouse gas emissions

November 13, 2007 at 6:56 am | Posted in Emissions, ExxonMobil, Grammar, Greenhouse gases, Misinformation, Use of English | 3 Comments

Fresh from London Heathrow airport, at the entrance to “that tunnel” on my way to the M4, I noticed a large banner over three lanes —its pastel blue and green reassuring shades, with pure white text, caught my eye as I drove underneath—and I found the use of ‘fewer’ very clever in this gigantic piece of advertising:

and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.


Since I was in the right-hand lane, those words were all I could take in. What is on the left side of that wide banner, I ask myself? Well, next week when I pass the same way again, I shall take a look!

Aside from the fact that the entire right side of that banner is misleading, I have a grammatical bone to pick with ExxonMobil’s advertising team on this usage of ‘fewer‘.

For a start, the words ‘few’, ‘fewer’ and ‘fewest’ should only be used when writing about things that can be counted—like my fingers—as opposed to things that can be measured—like my height. Measurable quantities use the terms ‘less’, lesser’ and ‘least’. Emissions can be measured, but each and every individual emitted particle is not counted. Even when talking in terms of parts per million (ppm) nobody expects the parts to be counted like beans!

So, ExxonMobil’s team should go back to their gigantic drawing board and start again. However, it is clear that the reason they chose to use ‘fewer’ rather than ‘less’ is that ‘fewer’ implies that ExxonMobil’s greenhouse gas emissions are few (thus conjuring up a small or an insignificant number a little greater than one in most folks’ minds). These ad guys are crafty, abusing the English language as slickly as they do to greenwash their way to higher profits and bonuses.

Needless to say, I had to check the ExxonMobil European website to see what one of the world’s largest companies may be telling me at one of the world’s busiest airports on one of the world’s potentially most widely read banner headlines!

Ah, well: no image of the ad there, but here are a couple of Opinion-editorials from ExxonMobil in Europe’s Media Centre, for my information (not yours!) as I am still pondering what could be on the sinister side of that misleading abuse of English 😉

ExxonMobil Europe Op-Ed 1 Climate

ExxonMobil Europe Op-Ed 2 Climate



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  1. I see they are involved with the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) at Stanford University; ‘The GCEP sponsors-ExxonMobil, GE, Schlumberger and Toyota-intend to invest $225 million over a decade or more in the project.’

  2. Hi matt,

    This is a long-standing bone of contention at Stanford. Earlier this year, Stanford alumni pressed their University to vote its shares against ExxonMobil’s management and support a shareholder proposal on the environment.

    An excerpt that provides some insight if you don’t want to read my entire post is:

    The Foundation noted that ExxonMobil, which has run TV and newspaper ads touting its ties to Stanford to “greenwash” itself, cites GCEP as a reason for shareholders to vote against the environmental proposal.
    According to Exxon’s proxy statement:
    “ExxonMobil worked to establish and is providing $100 million to Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project – a pioneering climate and energy research effort – to accelerate development of commercially viable energy technologies that can lower GHG emissions on a broad scale.”
    “Stanford was one of the first big extension campuses of Big Oil U,” said John M. Simpson, an FTCR advocate. “It’s refreshing to see them finally listening to their alumni and others concerned about ExxonMobil’s blatant abuse of the school’s image as a leading research institution.”
    Set up in 2002, Stanford’s GCEP is governed by a management committee comprised of the sponsors, Exxon, General Electric, Schlumberger and Toyota. The university doesn’t even have a vote. The corporate committee can decide what discoveries merit seeking a patent. Exxon and fellow corporate sponsors get exclusive rights for five years to patented discoveries made by the project’s researchers. Chief sponsor ExxonMobil has free rein to publicize the Stanford connection for corporate “greenwashing.”

    So that was the situation back in May 2007.
    ExxonMobil’s statements for GCEP and ExxonMobil’s own climate section with its climate views (which is where your quote comes from, matt, isn’t it?) clearly showing sophisticated obfuscation, tend to promote this stance:

    ExxonMobil is also committed to taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, both in its current operations and over the longer term.

    Unfortunately “a commitment to take action to reduce” is not the same as “a commitment to reduce”. If they fail to reduce, all ExxonMobil needs to show is that it has had a commitment to take action!

  3. OK, EM are huge and controlling. Basically they appear to have said to Stanford, ‘Here’s loads of money which will provide you guys some work and projects but we want to guarantee some of that risk by having control over patenting decisions’.

    Not unusual but EM are foolish for not letting Stanford on the committee and I can’t believe the university accepted those terms!

    I got the quote from your leaflet.

    Yes, action does speak loader than words. There is a fair amount of money going into alternative energies research. If EM miss the boat on development to market that’s their problem.

    I’m hoping the GCEP move by EM is a first tentative step into a new energy world, even if a this point it’s somewhat cynically controlled.

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