Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Less vs. fewer

This morning, on the BBC News 24 channel, I was appalled to hear an outdoor journalist say that there were "less and less public toilets" in the UK.

I was then pleased to see studio anchor Sîan Williams equally horrified.

But -- oh the humanity -- she then had to try to explain the difference between "less" and "fewer" to people's dancing hero Bill Turnbull.

She used the following example:

"You might have drunk less beer last night, but you had fewer pints."

Still Bill was troubled. "I just don't get it!" he exclaimed.

Now, at this point, don't get me wrong: I read a lot of writings by non-professional writers, in blogland and elsewhere. The writers don't always know some of rules of the language. But people in positions of professional journalism really don't have this excuse.

Bill, here, especially for you, the dummies guide to the difference between less and fewer: SINGULAR VS. PLURAL.

Just as you don't say "I ate too much pies", you don't say "I had less pies than you."

A plural noun takes the word "fewer"; a singular takes the word "less".

C'mon Bill: don't be such a dozy prat. You're a newsreader/journalist for the BBC, for Christ's sake. You're supposed to have a reasonable command of the English language...

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Blogger Tanya said...

Ah. Thanks for clearing that up. I had missed a few lessons when I was 12 due to Hepatitis A which confined me to bed for 6 weeks. I have never quite caught up grammar wise.

20 March, 2007 16:47  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

T: No worries. I'm conscious about not coming across as a big know-it-all poncey git, and that's not what I want (obviously). I didn't know until I moved into editorial work. I don't think it's something we get taught over here, sadly. My point remains that he, in his position, should know. Don't you think?

20 March, 2007 16:58  
Blogger Pickled Olives said...

I have no excuse - so, thanks for clearing that up.

20 March, 2007 17:49  
Blogger martinobhoy said...

Dont start me on BBC journalists. I had to tell one the other day (okay it was Ginkers at Rinaldi's Blog) that the letter Y could be a vowel as well as a consonant.

20 March, 2007 18:11  
Blogger Ben said...

Has this happened in the UK?


20 March, 2007 18:17  
Blogger mist1 said...

Now I'm confused. I understand this fewer than I did before.

20 March, 2007 18:34  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

Olives: Ah, I am certain you can find an excuse.

Martino: Sack o' shit, all of 'em, innit?

Ben: It's insane, literally.

Mist1: Yes, tres drôle! (I did actually laugh at that, though.)

20 March, 2007 18:43  
Blogger Martha Elaine Belden said...

i love that you and red are equally horrified by the improper use of language.

i'm sure i get things wrong on occasion, but i try really hard not to.

20 March, 2007 19:50  
Blogger Cynnie said...

eh, i'm southern ..we never let silly crap like grammar get in our way..

you guys have less public toilets?
remind me to wear my spaceman diaper when i visit

20 March, 2007 20:21  
Blogger Four Dinners said...

I never cease to be amazed that I can speak English at all

20 March, 2007 20:25  
Blogger Lee said...

I'm never using either word ever again.

20 March, 2007 22:50  
Blogger Milla said...

AHAHAHAHHA I love this post! Mainly because English is not my first language so I can see myself making a lot of mistakes (despite the fact that I have two university degrees in English!!). It does annoy me though when I see "it's" used instead of "its" and viceversa, or people who say 'it was more bigger'. Hello?!

21 March, 2007 08:54  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

Martha: Well, as for you, language is our livelihood, so we get paid to be picky. And that kind of rubs off into daily life...

Cynnie: I'm not saying anyone should worry greatly in daily use, but journalists ought to get things right.

4D: It's a tough language, for sure.

Lee: Good choice, missy. Maybe we should all make that vow!

Milla: I think this is actually easier for Italians because you're used to molto and molti, for example. "More bigger" (and similar) are VERY annoying!

21 March, 2007 09:33  
Blogger Red said...

Baby, you know I love you and I love every thought in your head, but saying that it's easier for us Italians because we're used to "molto" and "molti" is nonsense. Because English-speaking people should equally be used to "less" and "fewer" since that's also an integral part of this language's grammar.

If you want to claim that anything is easier for us for whom English is a second language, it's only the fact that we are familiar with the concept of grammar and therefore approach foreign languages (English or German or French or any other) with that sound foundation.

But mostly I find your claim that "it's easier for us" a bit offensive, especially because I know I have worked my butt off to learn to speak English correctly (and I daresay Milla has too).

Now go and make me a cafecito and maybe I'll forgive you... xxx

21 March, 2007 10:34  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

I meant in the sense that you don't have different words; you simply have to change the last letter. So this instils in you that a different approach is needed when dealing with singulars and plurals, thereby helping you to learn our language better, in many cases, than those whose first language is English.

We Brits are taught badly in school, of that there is no doubt. There is also little doubt in my mind that foreigners who live, get educated to a higher level, and work in the UK speak and write better English than the natives.

Both you and Milla, for example, have degrees in English. I know you have an MA in English taken at a London uni, so clearly you have a strong and enviable grasp of the language.

I know that not for you were seconds and the like, and that you would have been dissatisfied with anything less than the best grades, which you achieved.

You are quite a wonderful beast, and I didn't mean to undermine your glorious achievements, nor those of anyone else who has striven for and achieved similar results.

21 March, 2007 10:44  
Blogger Red said...

Eh, nice grovelling, buster, but I'm still waiting for that coffee... Oh, a couple of Mulino Bianco biscuits, please!

21 March, 2007 10:47  
Blogger Milla said...

Fra moglie e marito non metterci il dito, but I wouldn't mind a couple of those 'macine' biscuits from Mulino Bianco!
I agree with what Red says 100%, but also it is true that the Brits have a very poor knowledge of syntax and grammar. When I was an undergrad student and we were been tought Old English and Old Icelandic, I had to teach the people in my course about syntax. I was the only foreign in my year, and I was the only one, beside the lecturer, who knew anything about pronouns etc. And that was in one of the top unis... I can imagine at the bottom, what it is like.

21 March, 2007 11:00  
Blogger Red said...

Today it's Galletti on the menu. At best, I can rustle up a few Tarallucci, but no Macine, I'm afraid.

21 March, 2007 11:19  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Hmmm, the 'less-fewer' mistake is one of my pet peeves, too. A friend of mine got the local supermarket to change the '10 items or less' sign at the checkout. But as an ex English teacher, I am somewhat piqued by the assertion that English is badly taught. I was taught in the 'progressive education' environment of the seventies, have bachelor's and master's degrees in the subject and years of classroom experience but I still make mistakes, and part of that is due to the almost unique nature of English as a language, with all it's borrowed words, weird constructions and real lack of 'regularity'. 'Grammar' as a discipline, only came into its own in the nineteenth century (along with standardised spelling), when they tried to squeeze English into Latin grammar, with the result that the whole split infinitives debacle and other nonsensical rules were imposed.

Language is organic - the primary function of which is as a communication tool. SPAG is important, but expression is more so. Education has focused on this for some time now, but I'm sure the generation who have experienced the Literacy Hour will do us all proud soon enough.


21 March, 2007 11:38  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

Red: Grovelling, moi? Non credo...

Milla: I agree that Brits have poor understanding of syntax, grammar, etc. I just don't know why. If we are not taught badly (see Glamourpuss's comment), then we must simply be bad students. But we can't all be.

G/puss: Oh, I'm getting into trouble from all quarters! As mentioned in my comment to Milla, does your comment imply, then, that we are bad students? I just don't see it. I accept that an English teacher would find my assertion distasteful, and to be fair I can't comment on the current state of the education system. I was educated in the 70s and 80s, as a 1970 baby, and I don't recall once ever having been taught about pronouns, less/fewer, subjunctives... I could go on. I only learned about some of these things after becoming an editor for a publishing company, and some others only when learning Italian from Wife.

I do, of course, try not to split my infinitives, but I'm not slavish about it, especially when, as is often the case, it just makes a sentence clunky and ugly to read.

I agree language is organic, but still, I can't help being frustrated by authors such as Cormac McCarthy, who seems intent on doing away with as many of the English tongue's nuances as possible.

Furthermore, I think creativity is vitally important and must be encourgaed. But why can't it be encouraged within the confines of correct language usage, which has been good enough for thousands of exceptional authors through the years.

I don't know what Literacy Hour is, but it sounds like it might be a good idea. Fingers crossed, eh?

21 March, 2007 12:11  
Blogger cappy said...

shameful! i'm not the best at grammar or the spelling, but then i don't work for the nations biggets broadcaster!

21 March, 2007 12:24  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

Cappy: Exactly!

21 March, 2007 13:41  
Blogger _z. said...

okay! now I know.
when in doubt, I find that I often rely on "which sounds/feels better". I agree though, a public speaker should know better.

21 March, 2007 14:34  
Blogger Ben said...

I'm a writing tutor, and as such I've taken solemn vows to never under any circumstances whatsoever split my infinitives...

21 March, 2007 14:35  

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