October 16, 2003

Google psycholinguistics

Never mind reaction-time measurements, we can do psycholinguistics with google :-).

I'm following up on the conjecture that "fewer politics" is (psychologically) more wrong than "fewer italics." Both are wrong because in standard usage, it should be "less politics" and "less italics". However, "italics" is somehow closer to being the plural of a count noun than "politics" is, perhaps because one can think of "italics" as referring to the individual italicized letters.

Google gives these counts:

raw count
(corrected count)
fewer italics
less italics
fewer politics
less politics

The raw string counts are not necessarily right: "fewer politics" could be from a phrase like "fewer politics courses" instead of "fewer politics and better teamwork." So I checked the 12 hits for "fewer italics" and the 59 hits for "fewer politics" -- corrected totals are 11 for "fewer italics" and 53 for "fewer politics". This correction only strengthens my point, so I'm going to ignore it for now.


According to google, "italics" is almost 5 times more likely to be modified by "fewer" than "politics" is -- (12/1840000)/(59/43600000) = 4.82.

And "fewer italics" is used about 1/3 as often as "less italics" (38/12 = 3.17), while "fewer politics" is used only about 1/50th as often as "less politics" (3,140/59 = 52.2).

Q.E.D. "Fewer italics" is less ungrammatical -- as a matter of common usage -- than "fewer politics" is.

I'm sure that a similar exercise would show that "fewer physics" is wronger than either of these. This would be a little more work, because phrases like "fewer physics courses" are very common, so one would have to create and use corrected totals.

[Note: I'm not taking a position on the question of whether the grammatical feature is a count noun should be replaced by some gradient property of "countiness." For what it's worth, I tend to think that this would be a mistake. My point is that just that "italics" seems more like a count noun than "politics" does, to me and also (says google) to the average English-language web document writer.]

[Update: Bill Labov points out that google finds 52 instances of "less polemics" to only 3 instances of "fewer polemics". Go figure...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 16, 2003 10:10 AM