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In grammar, ‘less’ isn’t always more

Thu., Nov. 5, 2009

Well, I thought I was done with the subject, having pretty much made peace with the reality that no progress has been or ever will be made and that we are simply doomed to our complacency. Just live with it. But then that thing happened last week, and here I am again – tilting at windmills because I seem to have an infinite capacity for hopeless causes.

The subject is the English language and our continual and unrelenting abuse of it. I have gone on and on in this space about incorrect word usage, bad grammar and our seeming pride in treating badly this language we say we love and cherish but then go out and blithely mangle and misuse for all to see.

Now, it’s a dangerous thing to set oneself up as the arbiter of all things grammatical, lest one be caught doing the very thing one criticizes, but, as stated above, here I am again.

First the disclaimer. I know that language evolves, which it should. If English hadn’t, my next sentence might read: Beg pardon, Nigel, but would you pass the crumpets. Slang works its way into accepted speech, as do regionalisms, new words to give definition to new things (online, gigabyte) and trendy usages that eventually fade (that’s bitchin’, man). Even texting shorthand (OMG).

Given and accepting all that, there are still rules, rules which exist to help sharpen clarity and facilitate comprehension. I’m OK with bending the rules deliberately and for emphasis. As with sentence fragments. But the point is to know the rules and when it’s all right to break them.

English is the language most of us have been speaking all our lives. We even study it in school. How hard can it be to get it right? And why isn’t it important to more of us that we do?

Yes, I’ve said all that before, in one form or another. But then as I was watching TV last week, a commercial came on for a channel promising “more movies, less commercials.” Arrgh! Then I was in a grocery store over the weekend and actually paid closer attention to the sign in the fast checkout lane: “10 items or less.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. I took these two events as a message from the gods of grammar that I should take up the cause once more. Time to visit word usage again – specifically usage of two particular words.

Fewer and less are the subjects of today’s diatribe. They are often used incorrectly; one used where the other is called for, and for the anal retentive wordies of the world – of whom I am apparently one – hearing “less commercials” makes my ears want to bleed, though I am not as offended by seeing “10 items or less.” Maybe it’s an auditory thing.

OK, here’s the rule. Generally, fewer refers to individual things, things that can be counted individually (like commercials), and less refers to an aggregate, things that can’t be itemized one by one. Hence, it’s correct to state that there are fewer commercials, but it would be right to note that there is less advertising.

And in other situations – fewer drops of water, but less water in general. If I have fewer dollars than I used to have, that means I have less money. Individual countable things, fewer; nouns for an uncountable mass number of things, less. Ta dah!

My father did the less-fewer thing right. As a man who came to this country and first learned the language when he was 18, he wound up speaking pretty good, grammatically correct English, though with a slight accent. I remember him saying often how convoluted he found English grammar and how hard he had to work to learn to speak and write a new language.

For example, there are perfectly good rules of grammar – say, for example, the one that states that verbs go from present to past tense by the addition of an “ed” at the end of the word. Jump, jumped. Dance, danced. Like that. But then, my father noted, there about a million exceptions, like irregular verbs – run (ran), fly (flew), sing (sang). Drove him crazy, but he mastered it.

There are even some irregularities in the less-fewer dialogue, but let’s not get into that. OK, so it isn’t easy. But, if a non-native speaker like my father can get it, surely those who have spoken English since the cradle can master a tad bit more than just the basics.

And for a nice start, especially for the ears of the grammatically sensitive, can we please get that damn “less commercials” commercial corrected or off the air?

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@ Previous columns are available at columnists/.

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