Recently on one of the language Lists a discussion brewed up over the use of “less? in places where the grammar mavens insist on “fewer’. I found myself recognizing that my own use conformed to that recommended (dictated??) by the grammar mavens i.e. fewer for countable items and less for matter that comes in mass e.g. less sugar and fewer teaspoons.
The other day I said something like “less football players’. As I said it I recognized the “less/fewer? element and realized simultaneously that I had broken the grammar mavens? rule. With a tear in my eye, I set to figuring out why I had done that since in my own speech I tend to observe the less/fewer distinction.
The context was something like this: football players as an element of the class, affecting the number of students absent on game day or during assemblies. So, I suppose, when I said “less football players,? I had in mind football players as an undifferentiated mass (a socialist collective, perhaps). Therefore, I was picturing just lopping off a segment from the mass, thus giving me fewer (aha!) absences on those special days.
So where else has this sort of distinction been lost or confused? In the past, I have pointed out that more and mo contrasted in that “more? referred to “bigger in size? and “mo? to “bigger in number’. “More? won out (not to be confused with the loss of -r in British Received Standard and Southern American and African-American Vernacular dialects).
I was shocked when I bought a book on Middle English texts and opened the book to the following, on page 544: “Men ben sore aferd for takyn of mo….” Then, what prompted this post, I was reading a book on writing poetry by Stephen Fry where he quotes Chaucer: “He sit hym up withouten wordes mo, And with his ax he smoot the corde atwo.”
The point of this is not to “let kids say and write anything” but rather to recognize that as one distinction is lost another is born, perhaps to take the first’s place, and things go on. Taking a moralizing tone about language variation simply turns off all but the most sycophantic climbers. Please read the essay by the Austen scholar, William Deresiewicz, titled You Talkin? to Me? in the NYT Book Review (n.d.), who describes the crippling effect on student writing of constant harranguing over half-understood grammar rules.
From time to time I will post these interesting items from the history of our language. There is plenty on the web but I like to think I shape these blog comments to our needs as world language teachers.
Addendum of 12/7/06: Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations was speaking on npr about U.S. troop levels in Iraq and said, “less American troops” instead of “fewer’. He was obviously thinking of the entire body of troops as a unit and therefore wanted less of that body just like I’d like less of my body. He wasn’t thinking about the individual soldiers of which “fewer? would be the applicable word but about the entire body of soldiers. That is how these changes come about. Jean Aitchison refers to a “weak point,? like a chink in the armor, of the syntactical system of a language.