Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fewer please

Having discovered shortly before Opening Day that MLB.com would allow us to watch one free baseball game per day via Roku, my husband and I have watched far too much baseball over the last couple of weeks. As we’ve done so, I’ve noticed that most baseball announcers seem unfamiliar with the word “fewer”. Thus we hear that “Team A has less hits than any other in the majors” and that “Pitcher B has less saves than he did at this time last year”.

Every time the word “less” was used in such contexts, I would say, very quietly, “fewer”. Finally my husband informed me that he was afraid I was fighting a losing battle. I conceded that I was but vowed to fight on even against such overwhelming odds. This resulted in (a) my husband nicknaming me “Donna Quixote” and (b) my looking up the rules for using “fewer” and “less”.

I found the Wikipedia article on this subject most distressing. It begins reasonably enough by saying:

According to prescriptive grammar, "fewer" should be used (instead of "less") with nouns for countable objects and concepts (discretely quantifiable nouns or count nouns). According to this rule, "less" should only be used with a grammatically singular noun (including mass nouns).

However, the article immediately goes on to discount this view by referring to “descriptive grammarians”, “common usage of today and the past”, and “a personal preference expressed by a grammarian in 1770.” The real dagger to my heart though is this:

An extreme application of the prescriptivist rule can be seen in the examples "there is less flour in this canister" and "there are fewer cups (grains, pounds, bags, etc.) of flour in this canister", which are based on the reasoning that flour is uncountable whereas the unit used to measure the flour (cup etc.) is countable. Nevertheless, even most prescriptivists accept the most common usage "there are less cups of flour in this canister" and prescribe the rule addition that "less" should be used with units of measurement (other examples: "less than 10 pounds/dollars"). Prescriptivists would however consider only "fewer cups of coffee" to be correct in a sentence such as "there are fewer cups of coffee on the table now", where the cups are countable separate objects, although most people now and in the past use "less" even in such cases.

Really? If so, then apparently I am an “extreme” prescriptivist rather than merely one of “most prescriptivists” because I consider “less cups” just plain wrong whether I’m talking about cups of flour or cups of coffee.

The article did catch me out on another example in the above paragraph - “less than 10 pounds/dollars” - as well as on this:

In addition, "less" is recommended in front of counting nouns that denote distance, amount, or time. For example, "we go on holiday in fewer than four weeks" and "he can run the 100m in fewer than ten seconds" are not advised.

I would say “I have less than ten dollars”, “I go on vacation in less than four weeks”, and “I can run the 100 meter in less than 2 hours”. I can argue that in these instances the apparent count nouns (dollars, weeks, hours) are stand-ins for (I think) mass nouns (money and time) and thus I could rewrite these sentences as:

I have less money than ten dollars.
I go on vacation is less time than four weeks.
I can run the 100 meter dash in less time than two hours.

I would never say them quite that way, of course, but I would say:

How much money do I have? Less than ten dollars.
How long [a time] before I go on vacation? Less than four weeks.
What is my time for the 100 meter dash? Less than two hours.

As I say, I can argue this and I think there’s some validity to that argument but I may just be reverse engineering what sounds right to me so it fits with my extreme prescriptivism. After all, if someone asked, “How many weeks until you go on vacation?” I’m not entirely sure I’d say “Fewer than four” rather than “Less than four” - at least not every time.

All that said, however, saves and run are very definitely countable, as are most other measurements in baseball; it’s hard to derive statistics from non-countable actions, events, and occurences. Baseball can have fewer of lots of things: hits, runs, errors, saves, innings pitched, stolen bases, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, runs scored, runs scored against, at bats, bases on balls, grand slams, strike outs (looking and swinging), foul balls, runners in scoring position, caught stealing (or perhaps “caughts stealing” or “caught stealings”), balks, blown saves, earned runs, double plays, double plays induced, double plays hit into, day games, night games, away games, home games, free agents, intentional bases on balls, inherited runners, losses, wins, games ahead, games behind, tickets sold, and fans in attendance. Less, not so much.


Standard disclaimer for a post dealing with grammar: Somewhere in this post there is almost certainly at least one egregious grammar error. Also, I know I use commas oddly especially in relation to quotation marks. Consider it part of my ineffable charm.


DL Sly said...

I empathize completely. You should see me shake my head and immediately discount any further intelligence from one who says "Washington state" with any regularity. Since when did that cess pool in the District of Columbia get elevated to statehood so that we now must delineate between a city and that large chunk of land sitting by the Pacific Ocean above Oregon and west of Idaho?
I've tried gentle chiding by asking what the university has to do with *such and such* a subject to no avail.

E Hines said...

I mentioned in the thread of another post the need for more focus. However, I think you're over-focused here. I watch football and basketball with the same zeal you do baseball (though the Celtics have been making that hard...). The grammar failures of announcers is just as bad in these sports, and they cover the entire spectrum of grammar--every rule, including the kindergarten understanding of subject-verb number agreement. Oddly, with football, the ex-players often are more articulate and grammatical than their "professional" colleagues--and never less so.

You take Wikipedia seriously? You might be heartened to see what the Oxford Dictionaries blog has to say on the less is fewer question. Still, it's likely that more people follow Wiki than Oxford.

How much money do I have? Less than ten dollars.
How long [a time] before I go on vacation? Less than four weeks.
What is my time for the 100 meter dash? Less than two hours.

I'd answer those questions this way, conveniently ducking the grammar problem: How much money? None of your business. When do I go on vacation? None of your business, Burglarman. What is my time in...? I don't dash. It angries up the blood.

Eric Hines

E Hines said...

Couple more things, somewhat contradictory of each other.

We need more Heywood Hale Brouns and Dizzy Deans in the announcer's booth. Both were eloquent in their way, and clear and effective communicators.

Which brings me to the other thing. Dean didn't have much use for the niceties of grammar. Let the teachers teach English and I will teach baseball. There is a lot of people in the United States who say "isn't," and they ain't eating.

Eric Hines

Elise said...

I've tried gentle chiding by asking what the university has to do with *such and such* a subject to no avail.

Too subtle, I'm afraid. :+)

I suspect you would have fit right in at a recent lunch where a friend and I traded "things people say and write that drive me crazy" stories. It's always nice to find another member of the club.

Elise said...

Eric - Thanks for the link to the Oxford blog; very reassuring.

The way I heard the Dizzy Dean line was: A lot of people who ain't sayin' "ain't" ain't eatin'. And, yes, I wish we had more announcers like that. Perhaps part of the reason I hear the less/fewer problem so clearly is that most announcers are deadly dull.

RonF said...

I have a pie. I cut it up into 6 pieces. I give you a piece of pie. I have less pie. I have fewer pieces of pie.


Elise said...

I hope it's lemon meringue, Ron, that's my favorite.

It is simple when one thinks about it but one thing my Italian class has taught me is that I - and I suspect most people - know what's right in speaking by ear: either it sounds right or it sounds wrong. If it sounds wrong, then I think about it in order to reverse engineer the "why" of it sounding wrong. So if most people around someone says "less pieces of pie" it never sounds wrong to that someone and he or she never thinks about it.

I wonder if at some point the word "fewer" will pretty much disappear from American English and show up in dictionaries with the designation "Archaic".