Times WatchMay 19, 2008 Tim WorstallNewspaper Watch31 CommentsTsk. Financial woes mean less are marrying previousMaddy in UgandanextIt\’s All So Simple, Isn\’t it? 31 thoughts on “Times Watch” Mark Wadsworth May 19, 2008 at 10:24 am My local supermarket may be bloody expensive, but at least they have a special queue for ‘Six items or fewer’. So Much For Subtlety May 19, 2008 at 11:09 am Perhaps it is disguised social commentary – they mean only chavs get married these days? And Royals of course. And I thought that someone called “Autumn” couldn’t make me think any less of her. KMcC May 19, 2008 at 11:43 am have a look over at Language Log, folks, where the descriptive grammarians of Cambridge U have been pointing out that less/fewer is a recently confected shibboleth and that the best writers of the language have been using less and fewer pretty much interchangably since the middle ages. So Much For Subtlety May 19, 2008 at 12:09 pm KMcC – washing your hands after going to the toilet is also a recently confected shibboleth. Shall we ignore that one too? Don’t even get me started on toilet paper. KMcC May 19, 2008 at 12:22 pm You’re free to make a spurious distinction between less and fewer if that makes you feel better. But writers and speakers of English have had no difficulty in getting by without that ‘rule’ for more than a thousand years, from when the tongue was in its infancy. To quote the article linked below: ‘The primary point is that the now-standard pedantry about less/fewer is in fact one of the many false “rules” that have recently precipitated out of the over-saturated solution of linguistic ignorance where most usage advice is brewed.’ http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003775.html So Much For Subtlety May 19, 2008 at 12:46 pm KMcC I won’t want to be rude about this nor to have an argument. The distinction between “lesser” and “fewer” is not spurious. The distinction can be explained in a logical way to any five year old. It expresses a real logical difference. Now it may be a modern usage. I am sure it is. But it makes the language more precise and is worthy for that if no other reason. Yes, people got by without it. They also got by without indoor plumbing. Or the word “Trustafarian”. But what a big difference Trustafarian has made to the world and isn’t it nice we have a word for it now? So sure, the rule may be young. I see absolutely no reason to throw it out for that reason – why must all changes be for the worse? We don’t wipe our arses with goose feathers any more. Why should we speak like people who did? (Although to be honest having read some Rabelais I don’t really mean that – it would be no bad thing for more young people to write like him) KMcC May 19, 2008 at 12:54 pm the ‘rule’ does little – certainly not make the language ‘more precise’. It’s based on the stylistic fancies of someone writing in the 1770s who thought it sounded more elegant. It serves no grammatical purpose – although it seems to serve a useful purpose for those who wish to prescribe usage, no matter how well-attested that usage may be. As I said, make your spurious distinction if it makes you feel better; even make it your life’s work to weed out this ‘error’ if you like; but just don’t expect people not to point out that it’s fundamentally nonsense. markc May 19, 2008 at 1:00 pm It’s a bloody good job that KMcC seems to have adopted a significant majority of the other changes to have occurred in the English language during the past 1000 years or so. Like spelling and vocabulary, for instance. KMcC May 19, 2008 at 1:01 pm I’m mostly interested in the strength of feeling that less/fewer produces – especially when it’s pointed out that it’s nonsense markc May 19, 2008 at 1:30 pm I suppose we should be duly grateful that you deigned to write in the confected shibboleth called English to make your point, for those of us who don’t speak Middle English. Or Anglo-Saxon. Or whatever. Since I don’t have to rely on my mastery or otherwise of Middle English but I do have to rely on English, I’ll stick to the accepted rules for English, thanks. Long live the distinction between “less” and “fewer”, and “amount” and “number”. So Much For Subtlety May 19, 2008 at 1:33 pm KmcC, I might agree the rule does little but it does make the language more precise. It enables a distinction to be made betweeen less and few. KMcC – “It serves no grammatical purpose – although it seems to serve a useful purpose for those who wish to prescribe usage, no matter how well-attested that usage may be.” It still serves a grammatical purpose. If I could be bothered I would think of a sentence where the distinction was important. But that would be wasted so I won’t. Don’t you mean how well-attested the usage isn’t? The “spurious distinction” does make me feel slightly better. But it is a foolish and counter productive argument to claim I might “make it [my] life’s work to weed out this ‘error’”. I have no particular interest in this except to point out the obvious. As for people pointing out how nonsensical my argument is, well, I’d hardly expect anything else would I? One of the sad things about the death of socialism since I was a student is that people have to think whole new reasons to hate me now they have decided I was right about that. It is my public duty to help. Kay Tie May 19, 2008 at 1:40 pm “I’m mostly interested in the strength of feeling that less/fewer produces – especially when it’s pointed out that it’s nonsense” No, it’s not. It’s an adjective that agrees with the type of the object (viz. innumerable vs. numerable quantities). It’s no less useful than “is” vs. “are” or noun genders of French, German, etc. Do you also think that it’s merely style to scatter apostrophes willy nilly? Personally, I find them very useful: an approximate signal that the writer is illiterate or was educated since the late ’90s (which amounts to the same thing). ChrisM May 19, 2008 at 1:42 pm ” especially when it’s pointed out that it’s nonsense” I think you mean it is claimed to be nonsense rather than pointed out. But you are right, you certainly to have very strong feelings on the matter. Mark Wadsworth May 19, 2008 at 1:44 pm If the words ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are indeed interchangeable, then what does this mean “I think no fewer of them for voting Tory”? Tim adds: “Less of a problem” has a different meaning to ” fewer problems”. Quite. ChrisM May 19, 2008 at 1:53 pm “If I could be bothered I would think of a sentence where the distinction was important” Fred has less fish than Bert, but Bert has fewer fish than Fred. So Fred has a few sprats on his plate, whereas Bert has one big fuck-off shark on his plate. (Sorry, best I could do.). KMcC May 19, 2008 at 1:53 pm Mark – I never for a moment meant to suggest that they don’t have different uses – but that the supposed correction that forms the subject of this post (less/fewer marrying) is nothing but a pedantic peeve, but one that people cleave to like it was a raft in a shipwreck. Kay Tie May 19, 2008 at 1:55 pm “If the words ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are indeed interchangeable” Other languages have the same distinctions as less and fewer. For example, in Swedish (derived from the same linguistic roots as English) it’s färre and mindre. Whereas we have just “more” the Swedes again have two: fler and mer. Stephen May 19, 2008 at 12:58 pm Wow, somebody does a lot of Googling for less/fewer issues so that they can get on their soapbox! New rule or not, using “less” when the rule says you should use “fewer” makes you sound uneducated. If you’re going to reject things because they were invented by language scholars, why don’t you start a campaign to spell “debt” as “dett”? bodo May 19, 2008 at 2:20 pm I hesitate to get involved, however; Britain has less intelligent scientists than America. Britain has fewer intelligent scientists than America. Two very different meanings. Eva May 19, 2008 at 2:22 pm The lesser spotted eagle regrets there will soon be fewer raptors in England because fewer drivers of lesser ability are supplying roadkill. The Great Redacto May 19, 2008 at 2:28 pm It’s fewer. The simpliest of simple rules with this, and most other things, is: what trips off the tongue easiest, or reads easiest? Now, the fewer said, the better. Tim Newman May 19, 2008 at 10:01 pm It’s no less useful than “is” vs. “are” or noun genders of French, German, etc. Quite. My understanding of the (exceedingly complicated) genitive case in Russian was helped by my knowing the difference between “less” and “fewer”. KMcC May 19, 2008 at 11:25 pm All right, all right, please grant me your indulgence one more time. Obviously I don’t think that less and fewer are synonyms – the shallowest familiarity with the language reveals this not to be the case; and to assert otherwise would be illiterate. And insane. My point is this: when people wish to criticise the use of less with countable nouns and replace less with fewer (the very reason for this post was that Tim wished to claim that the Times subs were illiterate in using less with [people] marrying), they may be doing several things, but obeying some deep grammatical law isn’t one of them. The less/fewer distinction, according to the editors of the very big and scholarly Cambridge Grammar of English, was dreamt up in 1770 by John Barker, who thought fewer sounded more elegant when used with countable nouns. (I know – it’s an argument from authority – but is there any other kind where usage is concerned? Y’know, actual authors writing actual English?) That’s it – there is no inalterable law at work here, just one man’s subjective preference that has become in the course of 230~ years a fetish of ‘proper’ English for some, a recently confected shibboleth if you will; no more, no less. Obviously I appreciate the difference between less important things and fewer important things (and fewer things could be less important than this, some might say); but my point, poorly expressed as it was above, is that when people seek to claim that fewer is the only appropriate word to go with a countable noun, they’re talking through a hole in their hat. Rail all you like against ‘five items or less’ at the supermarket – it’s perfectly grammatical. Phew! Tim adds: Ah, but, you see, one of the commenters above, one who observes that the Times is in fact wrong here, is a sub on one of the other major national newspapers. My picking up on these trivialities is really something of a long running joke aimed at that rather small audience. Others can join in, of course, as many have done on this thread. ChrisM May 20, 2008 at 12:47 am “Rail all you like against ‘five items or less’ at the supermarket – it’s perfectly grammatical.” Ok, I’m actually being persuaded here. I am still not totally convinced though. “That’s it – there is no inalterable law at work here, just one man’s subjective preference that has become in the course of 230~ years a fetish of ‘proper’ English for some, a recently confected shibboleth if you will; no more, no less.” The same could be said of all rules of grammar; they are not inalterable. If we are talking about descriptive grammar, then 230 years (10 generations) of using it must qualify it as a rule of grammar now. Afterall, the fact we can trace the roots of how this rule started is the only thing that separates this rule from other rules of grammar. The point is surely that with hindsight, we can see a need for such a distinction exsisted. For some reason it took until 230 years ago for such a rule to develop, but now it exists and is a rule of grammar. 230 years may not be very long in geological, evolutional or even historical timescales, but it enough time for huge changes in language. Descriptive rules are aiming to describe a moving target (language), and if 230 years is not long enough for a convention to become a rule, I reckon we are going to be pretty short on rules. If we a talking about prescriptive grammar, then a must confess I have no idea. I don’t know what institution is the ultimate arbiter in these matters. And on this I’m willing to accept there’s as a good chance of you being right as me. Kay Tie May 20, 2008 at 1:56 am “The less/fewer distinction, according to the editors of the very big and scholarly Cambridge Grammar of English, was dreamt up in 1770 by John Barker” Some silly bugger dreamed up using -s as a plural, when we used to use -er, -en, etc. Whoever the bloody idiot was it’s caused no end of hassle because of the clash with possessives. I blame Chaucer and all that wine he had from Henry IV. Shtandsh to reashon, shurely? MarkS May 20, 2008 at 7:48 am Children! Children! So Much For Subtlety May 20, 2008 at 9:49 am MarkS – “Children! Children!” Yes. Well. It is a little bit of a concern that Mr Worstall has entire categories demonstrating Government f*ck ups, Government ignorance and total lack of the most basic economic understanding, Human Rights abuses, the gradual decline of pretty much every aspect of modern British life, but what gets us really going is the difference between lesser and fewer. Is this the longest thread in recent memory? Personally I put it down to the fact that what brings people together is what they hate or love the most. Many issues are often connected with those Bigger Issues. But some really small issues do not lie under the shadow of the bigger ones. So few of us disagree when TW lays into the NHS because we all hate the bastards too. But clearly pedantic English grammar is an issue that divides British conservatives, not unites them. Interesting really. Now I am going to ask someone to explain the difference between “like” and “as”. Stephen May 20, 2008 at 1:17 pm No, no, let’s get into “effect” and “affect”! gene berman May 20, 2008 at 5:25 pm The purpose of language (at least ostensibly) is to communicate. And, for the most part, communication is improved to the extent that ambiguity is minimized. This applies not only to the obvious case in which the receiver might be so burdened but also to the “sender’s” problem of just which word(s) to use. The usage or rule which most closely “nails it down” is the better (or even the best, as the case might be). The narrow rule with which KMcC is being bludgeoned is, indeed, correct. And no one, certainly, will misunderstand the sign in the supermarket, though to point that out is merely to observe that, in many things, sloppiness in procedure has little negative effect on the result. The problem with sloppiness is precisely that, in general, it works to defeat–to make more difficult–any substantive communication intended. Not all rules are good and rules change from time to time, frequently in some direction thought an improvement. Up to about 50 years ago, it was routine to use commas to separate words or clauses in a series of three or more. But a tendency developed to consider “better” a construction eliminating the ultimate comma; such style is now entrenched, considered “proper.” But it takes very little reflection to realize that the newer style is actually a step backward–toward ambiguity and confusion of meaning. Proponents of the new style insist that it’s simpler, uses less ink (!) which would otherwise have been wasted by all those redundant commas, and, that those cases resulting in confusion are manageable by simply adding the comma that would have been used in the older style. It’s true that relativery few problems are caused by the new style–but that must be contrasted to the “none at all” caused by the one discarded. And don’t get me started on “multiple.” Squander Two May 21, 2008 at 9:41 am ChrisM, > 230 years (10 generations) of using it must qualify it as a rule of grammar now. KMcC has omitted a rather important part of the story of the development of this “rule”. The point isn’t that someone came up with a rule 230 years ago; rather, he made an observation about his preferred style 230 years ago. Many people have since chosen to interpret that observation as a rule, which it was never intended as. Furthermore, unlike some of these affectations which do catch on (like the H in “Arthur”, for instance), this one didn’t: the English-speaking population at large went on using the word “less” for countables, as they had always done — which is what distinguishes it from Kay Tie’s example of using S for plurals. It certainly is possible for new usages to catch on, but, after 230 years, it’s fair to say that this one has had its chance and failed. And adding precision to and removing ambiguity from language is a good idea, but does not a grammatical rule make. Besides, we need some ambiguity for puns and hilarious misunderstandings in sit-coms. KMcC May 22, 2008 at 1:35 pm eh… I made the point twice that this was some bloke in the 1770s thinking it would be nice if we used fewer with countables. But thanks for pointing it out again anyway Leave a Reply Cancel replyYour email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *Comment Name * Email * Website Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.