Friday, 27 June 2008

Bad Language


This one has nothing to do with mission or ministry. It's a mind leak. In particular it's an oozing from my anterior pedantry lobe. Be warned. Even as I type I am my donning my sleeveless black academic gown over my leather-elbow-patched tweed jacket and reaching for the dustless chalk.

I am getting more and more narked by the inability of those who should know better to distinguish between the words less and fewer. More specifically I'm worried that we are in danger of losing fewer altogether. Consider these real life examples from recent radio or TV broadcasts: "There are now less cars on this stretch of road than last year"; "Less new musicians are waiting to be signed by a major label"; "Less and less people are using the village post office." Aaargh!

When speaking of discrete, distinguishable or, if you like, countable units the correct word to use is fewer. When referring to an undifferentiated mass or an abstract concept, then it's less. So that's less rain but fewer rain drops; less time but fewer minutes; less pedantry but fewer pedants. If you're still not clear try this online questionnaire.

OK so this is hardly a life or death issue. And yes, I know that language evolves, but not all change is good. If the word fewer disappears our language will be diminished, we will have lost one more subtle distinction and we will be the poorer for it.

So for the sake of our glorious tongue; in the name of William Shakespeare and Ian McMillan, embrace your inner pedant, join the resistance, together we can save fewer for future generations. Imagine how grateful they will be.

7 comments:

Bob said...

Quite right. It's why I love the Brita Water Filter advert. And why I have puzzled checkout persons in Sainsburys - '10 items or less', indeed!. At the last BU Assembly I delivered my usual rant, and the checkout person said 'oh, you're one of those wossnames, aren't you.' I suggested 'pedant', but she corrected me. 'No, a geranium. I saw a programme about them.' I'm fairly sure she meant 'grammarian' - at least I hope so!

tim f said...

Sorry to disagree, but I couldn't remain silent on such an important issue.

The word "fewer" is not descriptive. It is not poetic. As you've pointed out, its use is determined by a particular quality of the noun it's connected to. It doesn't tell us anything that we didn't know, because we can already tell whether the unit is countable from the noun itself. We will be no poorer without it.

In fact, there's a strong argument that it's elitist. It's a way of distinguishing between people - those who have had a good education and are "in the know", and those who have had a less good education and aren't.

Personally, I would be happy to have less words like fewer.

Bob said...

"My Portion is Defeat—today—
A paler luck than Victory—
Less Paeans—fewer Bells—
The Drums don't follow Me—with tunes—
Defeat—a somewhat slower—means—
More Arduous than Balls—

'Tis populous with Bone and stain—
And Men too straight to stoop again—,
And Piles of solid Moan—
And Chips of Blank—in Boyish Eyes—
And scraps of Prayer—
And Death's surprise,
Stamped visible—in Stone—

There's somewhat prouder, over there—
The Trumpets tell it to the Air—
How different Victory
To Him who has it—and the One
Who to have had it, would have been
Contender—to die— "

Emily Dickinson

There's even a place for 'fewer' in poetry!

Angela said...

Phew! this is all getting a bit heavy. I am not sure about the 'elitist' argument. Is there not a valid case for saying that those of us who use language 'publicly' - in the pulpit or the classroom - should be careful to use it correctly? Whether it is the fewer/less debate, or prepositions at the end of sentences ["Up with which I will not put!" as Churchill remarked]I think it DOES matter.
At the moment, I am more concerned by songs that have 'gonna' and 'wanna' in them!

Catriona said...

To join the pedantry.... I filled in one of those online opinion polls the other day. It was for the BBC. So why did the questions ask me, 'which country are you in right now'? Aside from being a shameless Americanism, did they really think I was about to leave immediately for another continent?

Common misuses that really irritate me are...

the use of 'them' when the intent is 'those'

the use of 'decimate' for anything other than one in ten

the use of 'electrocute' for 'electric shock'

So, for maximum irritation: -
Them people were decimated when they were electrocuted.

Jenny said...

I suppose that it is quite sad that of all the highly enlightening things I have read on this or any other site lately, it was this subject that caused me a sense of thrill and excitement and moved me to respond.'Yes! - there is someone else out there who feels as strongly as I do about the misuse of the words less and fewer!'

I have spent many years now offering explanations to those who persistently misuse these words, correcting those around me in the hope of doing my small part to turn the global tide and bring about a resurgance in the populararity of the word 'fewer'.

Sadly, the main effect of my efforts in this direction is that when someone uses the term 'less' in a conversation and my children are present, they both brace themselves for that moment when their mother offers a correction... at least they know what people 'should' be saying though whether they say it is another thing - as one of them told me..'not everyone talks posh like you do!'

Jenny said...

I suppose that it is quite sad that of all the highly enlightening things I have read on this or any other site lately, it was this subject that caused me a sense of thrill and excitement and moved me to respond.'Yes! - there is someone else out there who feels as strongly as I do about the misuse of the words less and fewer!'

I have spent many years now offering explanations to those who persistently misuse these words, correcting those around me in the hope of doing my small part to turn the global tide and bring about a resurgance in the populararity of the word 'fewer'.

Sadly, the main effect of my efforts in this direction is that when someone uses the term 'less' in a conversation and my children are present, they both brace themselves for that moment when their mother offers a correction... at least they know what people 'should' be saying though whether they say it is another thing - as one of them told me..'not everyone talks posh like you do!'