Friday 14 February 2014

Valentines Again

Just a little repost today of this video of me explaining why Geoffrey Chaucer is responsible for your restaurant bill this evening.

And I should mention that I'm terribly grateful to Macmillan who have nominated Inky Fool in their Love English blog awards. You can vote on the subject until midnight tonight.

Monday 3 February 2014

Less Fewers

I have been asked to pronounce on the explosive question of 10 Items or Less vs 10 Items or Fewer.

Just in case anyone is unaware of this Great Issue of the Day, there is a rule that appears in every English style guide: less amount and fewer numbers. So if I drink fewer pints, I have drunk less beer. That's because pints are something you can count, whereas beer is just frothy liquid.

Fewer children are less trouble.

I have less hair, because I have fewer hairs.

I have less shopping because I bought fewer items; fewer, in fact, than ten.

That's the rule. But, as with most rules, it's worth checking whether it's correct. After all, all that you need to get a book out on the English language is a willing publisher and a high opinion of yourself. I am living proof.

So, first let's check if you can use fewer for amount.

I like him fewer.

I am fewer happy today than yesterday.

I am fewer tall than you.

These are just plain wrong. And importantly they're not wrong because a style guide says so. They just Sound Wrong to A Native Speaker (SWANS). If a foreign friend were to talk like that you would giggle or gently correct them. This is not some rule known only to an elite few. It's SWANS, and SWANS is the most important rule of all.

So, what happens if you use less for numbers? Can you get the same effect?

I've drunk less pints than you.

There are less than five children here.

The answer must be less than five.

10 items or less.

Now, the thing about these is that though I know that the style guide tells me they're wrong, they aren't wrong in a SWANS way. They don't make you jump out of your skin. You would never be so rude as to correct a foreigner on this. The style guide says it's wrong, but it doesn't feel wrong.

I spent an awful lot of time trying to think of an example that sounded Properly Wrong, and I couldn't. I retreated into the desert and meditated on the subject* and I just couldn't think of anything that really sounded bad.

And then something really strange happened.

That's one fewer mouth to feed.

Sounds wrong. Properly SWANS wrong.

If we go this route, the journey will be twenty minutes fewer.

That's SWANS.

I have a hundred pounds. He has fewer.

That grates.

I started to find loads of examples where fewer sounded wrong when applied to a number, and less sounded right. I became confused and frightened and decided to try a different tack.

After style guides and SWANS, you can use God And Shakespeare (GAS) to decide what's correct. So I looked up fewer in the Shakespeare concordance.

He used the word 3 times. 3 times in 39 plays. That's really odd. That's less than he used also. The word only appears in Henry IV 2 once and Henry V twice. That's it. However, it is always applied to number.

Less, on the other hand, appears 225 times. And... and... I barely know how to tell you this:

Thou, why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou.

Shakespeare happily applies less to number as well as amount. Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

So after a strong drink and a lie-down, I decided to proceed to the King James Bible. There, at least, I would find the eternal certainties on which I need to rely.

The KJV uses less 30 times. And it uses fewer once. Here's the line:

And ye shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance among your families: and to the more ye shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer ye shall give the less inheritance: every man's inheritance shall be in the place where his lot falleth; according to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit. Numbers 33v54

That's it. God uses fewer even fewer times than Shakespeare.

So, where are we? Common usage, Shakespeare and God all seem to work the same way and have the same rule hanging around in the background. You can't use fewer for amount. But you can use less for number if you feel like it. And you can get away with not using fewer at all.

I realise that this is a surprising conclusion and that governments may fall, riots break out in the deserts and the earth fall from its orbit into the sun. But I couldn't care fewer. I hereby pronounce ex cathedra linguae anglorum that "10 Items or Less" is Absolutely Fine.

And for those of you interested either in the philosophy of mathematics or the works of Brett Easton Ellis, consider this: Fewer than Zero.

*Seriously. I was in a car that broke down somewhere near Abu Dhabi, and there wasn't much else to do.