A while ago, a friend posted a status on Facebook in which he mused that the 2011 census had employed ‘the incorrect use of less/fewer’. The offending construction was the use of ‘less’ with count nouns. That is, for my friend, it is ‘right’ to say ‘fewer people’ but not ‘less people’. There sparked a lively back and forth between several people about the nature of language change. I thought I’d briefly outline the linguist’s position here (some of which are almost identical to what I and others posted on Facebook, so apologies if you followed that thread!)
The idea that language change is a bad thing, or that ‘more and more people are using it [language] incorrectly’, as one commenter on the thread posted, is widespread, but certainly not new. For the present day, you need to look no further than a BBC article posted a few days ago reporting that ‘LOL’ had entered the OED and read the comments of your average punter to see that people have strong views about language change. Does it not occur to LOL-protestors that other words, such as ‘posh’ and ‘laser’, entered language in just the same way as ‘LOL’, as acronyms? Is that bad? In fact, there is nothing ‘bad’ about language change. Indeed, it makes very little sense to speak of language change as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Languages are always changing, and it seems that nothing can slow their onward rolling.
In her book Language Change: Progress or Decay (a work which I heartily recommend to all interested and the first chapter of which you can read here: http://pratclif.com/language/language-change-old.pdf), Jean Aitchison describes how our present day bout of ‘puristic passion’ has its roots firmly in the eighteenth century, with the likes of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth, Bishop of London. (Similar movements were afoot at the same time in Germany, which sought to guard its language against French influence.) Owing to the legacy of Latin, authors strove to eschew constructions in English that did not match a Latinate framework. As an example of a ‘linguistic error’ that continues to pester language purists today, one need think only of split infinitives. A friend told me recently how most of her corrections on her (science) DPhil were to do with the fact that she had made ‘grammatical errors’ such as split infinitives: this shows that such a view is ingrained even among the intelligentsia and not just the uninformed public. In Latin, of course, one doesn’t split infinitives when there are two parts (e.g. amatus esse, the perfect passive infinitive). But why should split infinitives, which were (as far as I am aware) ungrammatical in classical Latin, be ‘wrong’ in English, an unrelated language?
A word about Linguistics: the job of the Linguist is to analyse how people use language, rather than making judgments about that use. That does not mean, as I have taken great pains to explain to my father for years, that we have an ‘anything-goes’ attitude that manifests itself socially and politically as much as it does linguistically. Rather, it means we, rather like any kind of natural scientist, observe what happens, make hypotheses about it, and test the hypothesis. We note, for example, that there are within the English language, attestations of both he did very well and he done good to mean the same thing, that some masculine person did some particular thing in a good way. We also note that no speaker of English would say * did very well he. There is a difference between the second and third examples. The second construction is employed by certain speech communities (in this case, African American Vernacular English) and is thus grammatical within those communities. The third is ungrammatical. No English speaker would ever say it. (Naturally, there are languages where such a word order is, however, grammatical.)
When people speak of ‘wrongness’ or ‘rightness’ in language, what they usually mean is ‘dialect’ versus ‘standard’. As for definitions of ‘dialect’ and ‘standard’, that will have to wait for a later blog post, as they are notoriously difficult to pin down. What it is important to grasp here, however, is that there is nothing inherently wrong about a dialectal feature such as the one above in AAVE, it just doesn’t belong to the ‘standard’. People tend to associate ‘rightness’ in language with those forms used by the socially dominant group. It just so happens that the socially dominant group in the UK (i.e. middle class educated people) speak a variety of English which is far closer to the written ‘standard’ than people who are economically and educationally less well off. But the varieties they speak are no less systematic. How are they, therefore, any ‘worse’ or ‘better’ than any other variety? Indeed, it becomes foolish to use value judgment terms in association with language varieties.
It is true that all people ‘tune’ their speech to the situation and people they are talking to. We all obey social conventions in our speech. This is true in, for example, academic writing. I wouldn’t write ‘LOL’ in my dissertation, because it doesn’t fit with what is expected. But there’s nothing wrong with poor little LOL, as such.
People have been arguing about ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ of certain linguistic constructions for centuries. For example, a look at the Linguist David Crystal’s blog http://david-crystal.blogspot.com/2010/12/on-memy-being-right.html shows how the debate about nominal constructions with or without the possesssive has been rumbling on since the Middle Ages and people’s views have been influenced by whichever variant was viewed to be most prestigious at the time.
A further issue is that people conflate punctuation mistakes with ‘linguistic errors’. If someone writes your when they mean you’re or photo’s when they mean photos, what it is showing is that that someone has a shaky grasp of the writing system of English. It has nothing to do with language, as such. This is a crucial difference: the difference between the less/fewer debate and misplaced apostrophes is that the former is linguistic, the second orthographical. I share the pedant’s frustration that such orthographical confusion creeps onto shop signs and notice boards, as it shows a lack of literacy (or tiredness – that’s my excuse when I put apostrophes in the wrong place…)
But what about less/fewer? A Linguist chum of mine pointed out that, unlike my guess that a change was in the air and that ‘less’ with count nouns was becoming more common even in ‘standard’ usage, it turns out that ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ with count nouns have been bumping along side by side since Old English. The OED’s first example of ‘less’ being used with a count noun is King Alfred’s translation of Boethius, c 888: ‘Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma…’ (‘If with less words or with more…’). Apparently there are eight more examples taking us to 1972. It seems, in the words of my friend, ‘it’s always been used that way’.
All this shows is that there is great speaker variation with regards to ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ with count nouns. To me, ‘less’ sounds ungrammatical with a count noun. But I know many speakers for whom it seems entirely grammatical. If ‘less’ with count nouns hasn’t been considered ‘standard’ in the past, despite its attestations throughout the history of English, I’d argue that it looks like it is creeping into the ‘standard’ slowly but surely.