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Less, Fewer, Euphony

December 4, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

While I was eating breakfast Tuesday morning, I turned to the Wall Street Journal sports page, which featured an article about the college football conference championship games that would be played this weekend. The theme of the article was that these end-of-season games have not been all that good. They’re just a money grab by the leagues and the networks. By way of evidence, it was pointed out that

Quite often, these games don’t even turn out to be good: Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.

Gulp! I almost choked on my milk. There’s a story to be told here. So let’s tell it.

Some people believe language use should be based on rules, and that these rules should be followed consistently. Not that long ago, I tended to fall into this camp, the prescriptivist camp. The alternative view might be described as “anything goes”. The underlying view of this camp is that the study of language is empirical. Language usage evolves, people do what they do, with variation arising naturally. We can study this variation, and indeed we may well take pleasure in the study, but dictating how people should speak is not only misguided, it’s pointless, like trying to tell water to roll down the hill one way rather than another.

Descriptivists don’t reject the notion of incorrect usage. They do reject the creation out of thin air of usage rules that bear little relation to the actual work of people judged to be good writers, and even to the writings of the rule makers themselves.

Exhibit number one is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which has been oft and well criticized by linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and co-founder of one of my favorite blogs, Language Log. You can take a look, for instance, at his article 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, or at many of his Language Log posts.

I was introduced to Language Log four years ago when colleague and linguist Ellen Kaisse gave me Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, a compilation of many early Language Log posts by Pullum and blog co-founder Mark Liberman. What they said made sense, was funny, and changed my life. Really. Enough so that I had the aforementioned trouble swallowing when I read the quoted sentence from the Wall Street Journal.

Let’s turn to the ultimate rulebook itself, Strunk and White. We learn there, under the entry for Less, that it

Should not be misused for fewer. . . . Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. “His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not so great as mine.” “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine.”

Not one of their best explanations, but the point is simple. I like to think of it in terms of quantities we measure that are liquid-like versus quantities we measure that we count one by one. Thus, if we each fill buckets with water, I might have less water than you, but I wouldn’t have fewer water. If instead we fill the buckets with apples, I might have fewer apples than you. Can I have less apples than you? Well, maybe, but it sounds a bit awkward. Or does it?. Maybe a better example would be fingers. If I lost one through an accident, I would say I have fewer fingers than you do. Saying I have less fingers is just odd (though I may well have an odd number of fingers).

It’s not a bad rule as far as such rules go, but it shouldn’t be followed slavishly. And when we get to points rather than fingers or apples or water, we get into uncertain territory. If I came home from a basketball game and someone asked how I did, I might say not so good [or not so well, but that’s a whole nother issue], I didn’t even score my usual 20 points. The person might respond, in shock, “You had less than 20 points?” That sounds right, doesn’t it? Or do you prefer “You had fewer than 20 points?” I wouldn’t. Points are indeed discretely measured. I can score only a finite number of points, and I can count them one by one. But “fewer” isn’t necessarily the more natural word here.

We can argue this. Argue what, exactly? I would suggest that we should be arguing which word sounds better. It comes down to euphony, as judged by native (or long-term) speakers/listeners/readers/writers of the language, not adherence to a rule.

Once we let euphony be our guide, the situation facing the WSJ writer is no contest. Let’s look again. “Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.” Even if using less rather than fewer with points is a close call, it’s not at all close in this context, with fewer occurring already at the start of the sentence. The double use of the word is unconscionably grating. Why would anyone do that, other than to honor an absurd rule?

I decided Tuesday that I would need to write a post about this. It has taken four days. What didn’t take four days was my email to Professor Pullum. He would share my shock, wouldn’t he? And so, without delay, I wrote him the following note:

Maybe this is such a tiresome issue that you would just as soon not get an email about it. Stop reading if you see fit. But I just wanted to pass on an example in the sports section of today’s Wall Street Journal that brought my reading to a halt. It was in an article about college football conference championships, with URL

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704584804575644840639073672.html

Here’s the sentence that tripped me up:

“Quite often, these games don’t even turn out to be good: Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.”

Even though the rules of football allow only 11 options for point differences in the interval [0, 10], I would probably always prefer “10 points or less” to “10 points or fewer”. But given the nearby “Fewer than half”, I don’t really see much of a choice here. It’s just an awful-sounding sentence.

Oh well.

I know that Professor Pullum is a busy guy. I really did imagine he might not finish the email. I surely didn’t expect a reply. So when I didn’t get one Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday, I thought nothing of it. But then, late Thursday afternoon, a Language Log post popped up on my RSS feed with the title, Stupid less/fewer automatism at the WSJ. That got my attention. It was by Professor Pullum, and it turned out to be the post I should have written myself, if only I had his knowledge and his merciless wit. (Rather than quote from it, I suggest that you click through and have a look.)

Am I mentioned? What academic wouldn’t want to know? See for yourself, but you may have to read to the end. Don’t worry. Doing so will take fewer time than reading this post has.

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Categories: Language
  1. December 13, 2010 at 10:35 AM

    I thought yours was every bit as good as his.

  2. Ron
    December 14, 2010 at 10:08 PM

    Thank you.

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