Monday, 21 December 2009

Less is more: the fewer the better

If there is nothing else to grumble about, it is always possible to discuss misuse of language and bad grammar.

A pet peeve of mine is the misuse of 'fewer' and 'less'. The other day at my least favourite supermarket, I noticed a sign inviting customers with 'less than 12 items' to use the quick check-outs. If I'd had a texta pen handy, I could have corrected this, but alas, I did not, and what is more, my strict upbringing, which emphasised consideration and respect for others, would have prevented me from writing on someone else's property. (What a pity all those graffitists did not have this sort of upbringing.) Strangely enough, when I consulted one of my few books on the English language, there was this very example quoted. For some reason, I do not have a copy ofFowler's Modern English Usage, but I just now noted in one of the bookshops' pre-Christmas blurbs that there is a new edition. Now there is a good Christmas present idea! We would not want too few copies to be sold.

Surely it is my bounden duty to to try to educate the masses, wherever some or all of them can be found. I am unlikely to buy a loud hailer and take to the streets, the newspapers regrettably seldom, if ever, give space to my thoughtful, considered and invariably correct opinions, and Dr P already knows and agrees with my views on the correct use of language, grammar, spelling and punctuation. (We have delightful coses together pointing out the egregious errors of others, and pounce with glee on the far from few errors so frequently made by those expert practitioners of the English language and the art of communication, that is to say journalists and television reporters.)

I need to have fewer things bugging me, and there will be less weighing heavily on my chest once I get this written. Although this post might well be less fun to read than usual. On the other hand it may be possible that few other writers could express it so well.

Simply put, 'fewer' is not as many as. 'Less' is not as much as.

I have noticed that fewer and fewer people can understand this distinction. Here are some practical examples, which may or may not express my own views.

Are people less intelligent, less well-educated or just less sensible? Do fewer people care about this issue? (I noticed in an article in The Australian recently that someone kneeled down.)

If our borders were more secure and our policies harsher, fewer boats carrying asylum seekers would set out for Australian waters. If this country had more boats patrolling the seas, there would be less chance of foreign boats reaching Australian territories.

Mass vaccination campaigns have resulted in fewer serious epidemics. Now that fewer people are vaccinating their children, diseases such as whooping cough have become more rather than less prevalent. Fewer people would catch such diseases, and fewer lives would be lost if all babies were vaccinated.

I should buy fewer books, as I have so many of them already that there is much less space available on the shelves.

Fewer resources are available for our public hospitals, and it is less easy to get prompt medical attention.

If there were fewer cars on the roads, air pollution would be less. The tempers of motorists would be less frayed.

If climate change is in fact happening, there will be less rain and less water available. Without adequate water less food can be grown.

I drive a Toyota Corolla, which uses less petrol than many other cars, especially four wheel drives.

The more I say, the less my husband listens.

Older people and little children are less able to tolerate severe heatwaves.

If people in Western countries ate less food then there would be less obesity.

The outsourcing of jobs overseas may result in there being fewer jobs available here.

There are many fewer children per family now than there were one hundred years ago.

Are footballers kicking fewer goals these days compared with the great players of the past?

These are but a few examples. May I rest my case?

And don't get me started on the all too frequent use of object pronouns instead of subject pronouns. (Her and Brayden got kicked out of the nightclub. Me and him finished the HSC recently. Her and Abbott are emerging from the Party Room now. Yes, this last really was on the TV News, as it happened.)


VioletSky said...

Excellent, excellent examples!
I must admit, I almost grudgingly accept the signs that read "8 items or less" after seeing it written that way so many times. But in my heart, I know it is wrong.

word verification is shingl -maybe you should putr out a shingle for grammarian!

Anonymous said...

I was always taught that 'less' applies to mass or volume, and 'fewer' applies to objects that can be counted. I, too, am guilty of falling into incorrect usage. Thank you for the reminder. I am with you. More or less. (or should that be fewer and less).

Anonymous said...

Very informative. I think mathematics must be partly to blame, as it teaches that this symbol < means 'less than' even though it is usually used for whole numbers. The confusion between 'less' and 'fewer' is easily resolved once you know the simple rules for their use, as is the confusion of object and subject pronouns (just try them separately: you wouldn't say 'her emerging from the party room', so 'her and Abbott' makes no sense). Many people do not want to think about what they are saying, and would rather babble.

Meggie said...

I am so often disgusted by news readers- though in reality it is the copywriters I suspect, -whose mistakes in grammar & mispronuncion go unchecked.
Great post!

Pam said...

Ah, but much worse (in my opinion) is using the subject form "I" when the object form "me" should be used. Eg "He waved to Andy and I." In my experience, students seem often to think that "I" is "more polite". " Argh.

Happy Christmas all the same from my family and ME.