January 04, 2007

Less than three years: a policy revision

As you may know, we language writers often have to hold down two or more jobs in order to maintain the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed. I am Senior Contributing Editor here at the great Language Log corporation, but I also moonlight as a Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And I have to participate in the governance of the university just like any other professor. In fact I currently chair a committee of the Academic Senate. And in that capacity I recently received a copy-edited proposed revision of promotion regulations in the Academic Personnel Manual, sent to me for comment by the University Committee on Academic Personnel (UCAP), in which I read the following:

Advancement to Step VI usuallywill not occur after less fewer than three years of service at Step V . . .

The change proposed (along with two other such alterations plus some more substantive changes; old wording in strikeout, new in underlined boldface) is an implementation of an old, old prescriptivist rule that insists less than N  X's is ungrammatical if you can count X's. This rule is bogus. And, I thought, they shouldn't ask professors of linguistics to chair committees if they don't want linguists' opinions. So I couldn't resist writing the following paragraphs as the opening of my committee's letter of comments:

The Committee on Career Advising has carefully examined the proposed new wording for APM 220-18b(4).

First, the Chair of CCA, in his personal capacity as a specialist in English grammatical structure and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, would like to remark that he notes with displeasure the work of the nitpicker on UCAP who has changed "less than N years"to "fewer than N years" in three places in the revised regulations. The change betokens ignorance of the grammatical facts. The phrase "less than" has always been preferred over "fewer than" with expressions denoting time units. For example, Alexander Pope, the greatest English poet of the early 18th century, wrote in a footnote in his superb translation of the Iliad that Priam "loses in less than eight Days the best of his Army." This is not a grammar error!

The rule UCAP imagines it is enforcing here originates in a very modest statement of a personal preference by one Robert Baker in 1770. The modern belief that it is a strict rule bears the same relation to good grammar that shoe fetishism bears to romantic love.

Our committee would have to concede, however, that fighting UCAP's misguided grammatical pedantry, and advising it to obtain a copy of Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, is strictly ultra vires. And so we turn to the content . . .

The exciting linguistic bit ends there, and it goes on to boring administrative stuff about the policy itself.

I wish I thought that the scales will fall from the eyes of the Chair of UCAP, and that he will see that he does not have to labor over perfectly intelligible and grammatical phrases like "after less than three years" and alter them to comply with a tentatively expressed personal preference by a modest scholar who has been dead roughly a quarter of a millennium, ignoring the good grammatical taste of the greatest poet of his age. But it won't happen.

The Chair in question is Professor Anthony Norman of the Riverside campus of UC. He is a very distinguished professor (emeritus) of biochemistry, way senior to me. When he got his B.A. from Oberlin in 1959, I was still trying to figure out the fingering of B7 on my first solid-body electric guitar. When he got his Ph.D. in 1963 I was a teenager playing piano in funky bars in Frankfurt with Sonny Stewart and the Dynamos. The likelihood that Professor Norman will ever believe a jumped-up young whippersnapper like me on a question of usage in his native language is zero, zip, nul, nada, zilch.

Professor Norman has, no doubt, a copy of the noxious little Strunk & White book The Elements of Style somewhere around his office, and he probably believes that everything it says is true. "Should not be misused for fewer" is what Strunk & White says about less: "Less refers to quantity, fewer to number." But that's not true. The actual picture of the overlapping uses of these words is much more complicated (for a truly expert discussion of the grammatical facts, see what Rodney Huddleston says on page 1127 of his masterful chapter on comparatives in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language).

One thing that is particularly clear is that less is fine when you're talking about numbers of time units making up a quantity of time. But Professor Norman will believe William Strunk and E. B. White, not me.

You can't get a leopard to change his spots. In fact, now that I come to think of it, you can't really get a leopard to appreciate the notion that it has spots. You can explain it carefully to the leopard, but it will just sit there looking at you, knowing that you are made of meat. After a while it will perhaps kill you.

I'm quite sure Professor Norman would rather kill me than change fewer than three years back to less than three years the way it always was before in the UC academic personnel regulations. It will not matter that no one who has examined the record of English literature or the content of scholarly works on English usage could think this is a justified view. That's not how it works with usage. People will not listen to linguists on this sort of matter. I know that. But I thought I would write the opening paragraphs into my committee's letter anyway. No one will pay any attention. I'm howling into the wind. But hey, it's part of my job, just as studying the systemic transport and physiological responses of the steroid hormones 1a,25(OH)2D3 and 24R,25(OH)2D3 is part of Professor Norman's job.

The main difference is simply that (for reasons that still are not fully clear to me) I and everyone else will be fully prepared to take him to have professional expertise on the role of 24R,25(OH)2D3 in bone fracture healing, whereas he will never be prepared to take me or any linguist as expert in the matter of the normal distribution of comparative-form determinatives with count and non-count nouns in English NP structure. That's just the way it is.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 4, 2007 08:20 PM