One fewer thing to fuss about

Let us say, for the nonce, that the author of a book telling people how to improve their English has declared, “More is commonly used in speaking of numbers; I believe greater would do better. No greater than a hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No more than a hundred, but more strictly proper. More is best reserved for mass quantities.”

Well. We English speakers have a very problematic relationship with our language. If something seems natural, simple, clear, and obvious, and if it’s something we heard people do all the time, we are very eager to believe a rule telling us it’s wrong. We’re prone to rule-seeking behaviour because we’ve learned to be insecure about our grasp of English’s rules – they’re so capricious and inconsistent – and a new rule also gives us an additional sorting and tidying tool… and something to whack people on the head with to show our superiority, too.

So, if the book came out at the right time and found the right audience, we would soon have people insisting that cookbooks that say “More than 200 of the best high-fat recipes” should instead say “Greater than 200 of the best high-fat recipes,” and that when inviting friends over you should say “The greater, the merrier”; news articles would fussily put “Observers estimated there were greater than 5,000 people in attendance” and “He has lived in the city for greater than five years.”

Does this sound far-fetched? It’s so incredibly near-fetched, it’s fetched right off your page… more or less.

I say “more or less” because it’s not more but less that has had this happen to it. More, we know, can refer to countable things or mass objects, and has been used so since the dawn of English. Less, likewise, since the dawn of English, has been used to refer to countable things or mass objects. This is why we can, and often do, say things such as “One less thing to worry about” and “One person more or less won’t make a difference.” It has never not been used for countable things.

But in 1770, a chap named Robert Baker came out with a book titled Reflections on the English Language in the Nature of Vaugelas’s Remarks on the French; Being a Detection of many improper Expressions used in Conversation, and of many others to be found in Authors. To which is prefixed a Discourse Addressed to His majesty. It presented a long catalogue of common transgressions of what he considered proper usage; number XLVII among them was LESS:

This Word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. No fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper.

No previous work has been found that insisted on this distinction. You’re looking at the birth of this “rule,” more or fewer. I mean greater or less.

Of course people didn’t immediately stop using less for countables. We know that because they still haven’t stopped. But that didn’t keep this superstition from spreading and infecting grammar instruction broadly. No matter that the leading authorities of our own time point out that it’s a fake rule; fakes are often more popular than the real things.

And so people bridle at “12 items or less,” as though it were a disgusting debased barbarism of the dreadful verminous uneducated hordes (is this shot through with classism? you bet it is), and carp at “He has one less painting than he thought he did,” and write – or, even worse, edit someone else’s writing to – “It lasted fewer than seven days” (pause to note that it remains “less than a week” and not “fewer than a week” even for the worst grammar numpties). Never mind that “It lasted less than seven days” sounds natural and idiomatic. That doesn’t mean it’s right!!!

Yeah, actually, it kinda does. Idiomatic matters. If something you think is correct on the basis of some rule you’ve learned sounds weird and awkward, while the “wrong” thing sounds natural, stop and question your understanding and application of the rule. And take a good hard look at whether the rule is a well-founded rule at all. If your writing is awkward, you’re not writing well or effectively. Which means it’s not good English.

So congratulations. You have one fewer thing to fuss about. I mean one less thing. And I have nothing greater to say about this.

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