Language can be a beautiful thing.
Words artfully used, delivered by a gifted orator or writer, can touch us in ways that uplift the spirit, make us cry or laugh and create lasting impressions and images that can change lives. Or they can be like fingernails on a blackboard.
I receive a good number of grammar-oriented notes and posts, because of my penchant for writing on the subject from time to time, and a recent one has stuck with me. There was the setup sentence, followed by the comment that “this is an issue I couldn’t care fewer about.”
It hurts my eyes and ears to see “fewer” in that sentence, which, of course, was the writer’s humorous point. And so, I once again find myself compelled to wade into the grammar wars. We begin stuck in the less/fewer swamp, out of which few of us emerge without mostly screwing up the use of “less.”
Simply, “less” is used when referring to singular mass nouns – “I have less milk than you have.” In other words, not as much of the aggregate thing. “Fewer” is used for items that can be counted – “I have fewer cookies than you have.” In other words, not as many of the separate individual things.
I hear and see these two words used incorrectly all the time. On nightly traffic reports, just about every broadcaster says some variation of this: “There are less cars on the freeway tonight.” No, there aren’t. There are fewer cars there. You can count ‘em. However, there is less traffic (a mass noun).
Wading into the weeds, there is one more thing before moving on – with “less” and “fewer” there are some fine points concerning plural nouns and such, and a variety of exceptions, of course, one of which being that “less” has so many applications – adjective, preposition, adverb, pronoun, determiner. This is English grammar, after all, which my father, a native speaker of German, once told me with some exasperation, has more exceptions than rules. But still, it’s what we’ve got, so let’s do right by it, as best we can without sounding priggish.
Or am I too late on that score?
“Farther” and “further” are also much abused, I notice. Generally, the former refers to physical distance – “I ran farther than you did.” And the latter refers to figurative distance – “Saying you ran farther than I did could not be further from the truth.”
“Lay” and “lie” are two others that trip us all up, myself included. “Lay” as a verb requires an object – “I lay my book on the table. “Lie” doesn’t – “I lie down on the sofa.”
These two words get tricky in the past tense and as a past participle, so beware. For example, past tense of “lie” is “lay.” Past tense of “lay” is “laid.” It’s at this point that my temples start throbbing, so when in doubt, I either look it up, guess or punt and replace with another acceptable word – “I placed the book on the table.”
The grammar goddess in me is getting fussy about pronunciation, too. Clearly, I have too much time on my hands during these COVID-19 isolation days.
I have no real quarrel with regional differences in speech, for the most part, though I’m quite over Northerners’ appropriation of “y’all.” Some people pronounce the “f” in “often.” Or emphasize the first syllable in “insurance” rather than the second. Or any of the variations in how you say “caramel.” Fine.
But I have to draw the line at “divisive.” I’m not sure why, but I do. Politicians in particular insist and persist, for the most part, on saying “duh-VISS-iv,” when in fact it’s “div-EYE-siv.” I’ve looked it up, and while the politicians’ way of saying the word is kind of a secondary ok(ish), almost acceptable way to say the word, it’s not the preferred way. So, stop it, please.
In about a month, I shall turn my attention to the various organizations that select words and phrases of the year. Boy, 2020’s choices are going to be doozies. As an aside, it’s interesting that etymologists think “doozy” is in itself a mispronunciation or changed way of saying “daisy,” which about 150 years ago was slang for a person or thing considered the most outstanding.
But I digress. Back in March when the realities of Covid began to impact our lives more significantly, I (thinking way ahead) immediately realized that “social distancing” would surely be a top contender for word/phrase of the year. We’ll find out soon.
Meantime, I remain at home thinking about things … like words. There is an observation about them, author anonymous, that I like:
“Be careful of the words you say, Keep them short and sweet. You never know, from day to day, Which ones you’ll have to eat.”
— Stefanie Pettit can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
— The column has been updated with the previously omitted last three paragraphs.