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less and fewer
Posted: 18 September 2017 05:21 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I wish English teachers would take more time to teach the difference between “less” and “fewer”, as well as other similar combinations. It was always a gripe of my parents (both with degrees in English), who both said it was easy to make clear to young kids, if one made a sincere effort.

As I grew older, I began to understand their frustration.  I have noticed that fewer people announcing on TV today know less than they did years ago about the difference between the meanings of these words, and the like.

OK, it’s off my chest.

[ Edited: 18 September 2017 05:28 PM by Eyehawk ]
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Posted: 18 September 2017 10:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Lay/lie, seems to be more of a pervasive misunderstanding.

Eyehawk, people seem to be heeding your frustrations. I’ve noticed that quite a few check-out aisles in grocery stores have changed their signs from to 15 items or less to 15 items or fewer.

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Posted: 19 September 2017 02:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Eyehawk - 18 September 2017 05:21 PM

I wish English teachers would take more time to teach the difference between “less” and “fewer”, as well as other similar combinations. It was always a gripe of my parents (both with degrees in English), who both said it was easy to make clear to young kids, if one made a sincere effort.

As I grew older, I began to understand their frustration.  I have noticed that fewer people announcing on TV today know less than they did years ago about the difference between the meanings of these words, and the like.

OK, it’s off my chest.

Zombie rules.  This one grew from a preference by one Robert Baker in 1770.

https://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/10-items-or-less-is-just-fine/

As for lie/lay, as a card-carrying geezer I get to be told often enough to deposit my body on an examining table and I would say that it is a conservative estimate that I get told to “lay down” approximately 90% of the time.  The grammar of a language grows from within, it is not imposed from without.

[ Edited: 19 September 2017 02:36 AM by Faldage ]
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Posted: 19 September 2017 04:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has this to say:

This rule is simple enough and easy enough to follow. It has only one fault—it is not accurate for all usage. If we were to write the rule from the observation of actual usage, it would be the same for fewer: fewer does refer to number things that are counted. However, it would be different for less: less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted. Our amended rule describes the actual usage of the past thousand years or so.

[...]

The OED shows that less has been used of countables since the time of King Alfred the Great—he used it that way in one of his own translations from Latin—more than a thousand years ago (in about 888). So essentially less has been used of countables in English for just about as long as there has been a written English language. After about 900 years Robert Baker opined that fewer might be more elegant and proper. Almost every usage writer since Baker has followed Baker’s lead, and generations of English teachers have swelled the chorus.

[...]

In present-day written usage, less is as likely or more likely than fewer to appear in a few common constructions.

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Posted: 19 September 2017 05:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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It was always a gripe of my parents (both with degrees in English), who both said it was easy to make clear to young kids, if one made a sincere effort.

It’s hard for me to repress my rage when I read things like this. Young kids speak their language perfectly well (at their age level, obviously), and will grow up speaking it perfectly well (being native speakers)—unless their native language use is corrupted and perverted by well-meaning parents who think their language should be something other than it is.  In which case they will have the same sort of lifelong neurosis as women who are constantly admonished about their weight from the time they are little girls, and will pass the neurosis on to their own kids.  (Cue Philip Larkin.)

In the immortal words of Robert A. Hall Jr., Leave Your Language Alone!

(In case it’s not sufficiently clear from the above rant, kids use less and fewer perfectly well without instruction.)

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Posted: 19 September 2017 06:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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The lie/lay distinction at least has historical justification, which is more than can be said for the less/fewer distinction.  On the other hand, the historical justification for lie/lay is Old English grammar.  It is unsurprising that speakers of Modern English find it perplexing.  Modern English has the characteristic that verbs may freely switch between transitive and intransitive uses.  Except, so we are told, lie/lay and the other three kindred fossils from Old English.  The claim is implausible on its face.

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Posted: 19 September 2017 07:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Eyehawk - 18 September 2017 05:21 PM


OK, it’s off my chest.

The essential difference between a supposed rule of grammar and a stylistic preference masquerading as a rule of grammar is
personal preference.

OK, it’s off my chest.

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Posted: 19 September 2017 08:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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It was always a gripe of my parents (both with degrees in English), who both said it was easy to make clear to young kids, if one made a sincere effort.

It’s hard for me to repress my rage when I read things like this. Young kids speak their language perfectly well (at their age level, obviously), and will grow up speaking it perfectly well (being native speakers)—unless their native language use is corrupted and perverted by well-meaning parents who think their language should be something other than it is

I don’t want to initiate a debate on this, but I don’t understand your rage. I don’t see a problem with parents trying to teach youngsters certain grammatical rules that might apply to Standard English, especially given that elementary schools seldom do.  Also, not all youngsters speak their language perfectly well; therefore, I don’t see the harm in teaching them certain rules.

I recognize the practice of a nonjudgmental approach to language, but I also understand that it can be a fallacious position, because we all judge people, inadvertently or not, by how they speak.

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Posted: 19 September 2017 09:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I don’t see a problem with parents trying to teach youngsters certain grammatical rules that might apply to Standard English

This is circular reasoning.  You’re implicitly defining Standard English as “native-speaker English plus whatever stupid pseudo-rules have been invented by people who have strange ideas about Latin or something” and then saying “Well, why shouldn’t parents teach their kids these rules?” Because they’re stupid, that’s why, and we’d all be better off without them.

Also, not all youngsters speak their language perfectly well

Yes they do, as long as they’re native speakers growing up in a native-speaker community; that’s one of the basic postulates of linguistics.  If you doubt it, think about the many, many languages that have not suffered the “benefit” of classroom instruction in their own language; how do you suppose they wind up using it correctly?  Because they absorb it from the speakers around them, just like all native speakers.  That’s how language works.

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Posted: 19 September 2017 12:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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This is circular reasoning.  You’re implicitly defining Standard English as “native-speaker English plus whatever stupid pseudo-rules have been invented by people who have strange ideas about Latin or something” and then saying “Well, why shouldn’t parents teach their kids these rules?” Because they’re stupid, that’s why, and we’d all be better off without them.

Are you suggesting that all grammar rules are stupid and that parents shouldn’t teach their children any rules on grammar?

If you doubt it, think about the many, many languages that have not suffered the “benefit” of classroom instruction in their own language; how do you suppose they wind up using it correctly?

And what is the correct way?

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Posted: 19 September 2017 12:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Are you suggesting that all grammar rules are stupid and that parents shouldn’t teach their children any rules on grammar?

No one is suggesting any such thing. The objection is to invented rules that have little or no basis in actual usage.

And children don’t need to be taught grammar. They learn it perfectly well on their own. Witness American children growing up in homes where their parents don’t speak English; almost without exception they end up speaking perfectly standard American English by the time they’re in fifth or sixth grade.  There’s no harm in parents correcting children to reinforce and speed the learning, so long as it’s actual rules of grammar their teaching and not invented ones. But such instruction is not necessary.

And what is the correct way?

The way that people actually speak.

[ Edited: 19 September 2017 12:48 PM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 20 September 2017 09:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I would add that it is perfectly sensible for parents to teach their children about different registers.  Central to this is the discussion about when to use which register.  What is not sensible is to couch the discussion in terms of the formal register being “correct” and everything else “incorrect.” This is like telling your son that he should wear a coat and tie to the beach.

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Posted: 20 September 2017 01:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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What do the following sentences mean?

I see less running on the court.

I see fewer running on the court.

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Posted: 20 September 2017 02:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I can’t imagine myself or anyone I know saying the second; normal English phrasing would be “I see fewer people running on the court.”

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Posted: 20 September 2017 04:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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ElizaD - 20 September 2017 01:11 PM

What do the following sentences mean?

I see less running on the court.

I see fewer running on the court.

With no context, we can only guess, but reasonable guesswork suggests that the first sentence compares the
amount of running one sees on a tennis or basketball or similar court to the running seen elsewhere.  Or, stretching credulity,
it compares the frequency of running on a court house roof to that done elsewhere.  Or, if one were to compare UConn women’s basketball to other teams, it means that the former uses more passing on offense, while lesser teams run and dribble.

The second sentence could suggest—lack of context is the mother of invention—that one is more apt to see a herd of white tail deer running through the trees than on the bocce court.

Shall we invent a latinate rule of grammar to govern such speculations, or settle for not splitting infinitives in sentences ending with prepositions?

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Posted: 20 September 2017 06:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I can’t imagine myself or anyone I know saying the second; normal English phrasing would be “I see fewer people running on the court.”

Why? There seems to be some sort of implied “rule” for “normal English phrasing” at work here.

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