February 05, 2007

I have different determiner constraints so you're awful

Says Mary Ann Sieghart at The Times of London:

A grammar grouch is vindicated

I've become such an old grammar grouch these days that I'm as bad as Lynne Truss. Whenever someone on the radio says "less" instead of "fewer", I find myself shouting "FEWER!" back to the ether. Of course the offender can't hear me, so it's a pointless piece of radio rage.

So imagine how satisfying it was to hear Start the Week on Monday. Claire Fox, director of the Institute for Ideas, was holding forth on why too many people go to university. "I'm not saying that less people should go," she said. "FEWER!" I shouted, impotently, at the radio. "Fewer," echoed one of the other studio guests.

I'm not sure it's very polite to correct someone else's grammar on air. But it left one listener extremely chuffed at home.

No, it's not polite, Ms Sieghart. And it is rather hard to see why an interruption of a radio broadcast by a rude big-mouthed prescriptivist would make you chuffed. But this is how it is with the pointless game of Grammar Gotcha.

As I said in my earlier post on Grammar Gotcha, it is played by people "whose misguided pedantry undermines the very idea that the business of grammar might involve complex patterns of evidence, difficult investigations, subtle distinctions, intricate generalizations."

Mary Ann Sieghart seems actually to be proud of having uncontrollable urges that make her shout lexical replacements at an inanimate object. It is as if she imagines it establishes her as someone who has a firm education in matters of English usage.

I recently commented on the drive some people have toward fetishistic replacement of less by fewer in a slightly different context (cases like less than ten years, where less is followed by than). It seems to me that things are a bit more stacked against less when it functions as a determiner of a plural count noun. Fewer people is more common than less people. As a preliminary rough check, I looked at the Wall Street Journal for 1987-1989, and found 77 occurrences of fewer people but only 6 of less people. Nonetheless, those 6 cases are over 8 percent of the total, in a source that goes through copy editing. And on the web as a whole, it's almost exactly neck and neck: 1.14 million for less people, 1.15 million for fewer people. That couldn't possibly be statistically significant.

Now, for heaven's sake don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that claims about grammaticality rest on or can be justified by statistical facts about what occurs in actual usage (despite the rational assumption that a hell of a lot of the the material written by native English speakers is likely to be the sort of material native English speakers find grammatical). Of course there can be very frequent sporadic errors; I deliberately put one into the preceding sentence just to see if you would notice. No, all I want to say about this is just that it is very strange how people want to control other people's usage so much that they will shout at a radio. If Ms Sieghart stuck firmly to her personal preference for fewer with plural count nouns, there would be nothing strange about that at all. It's the instinctive, visceral urge to punish others for having a very slightly different set of conditions on determiner use that is such a strange human phenomenon.

[Hat tip to Steve Linley.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 5, 2007 10:12 AM