Less/fewer problems with ‘incorrectness’

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.

15 thoughts on “Less/fewer problems with ‘incorrectness’

  1. All right then, sister dear. This seems to me, as one who is not particularly fussed about fewer and less and indeed, one who is forever mixing them up, to be a classic case of anti-ideological ideology.

    What you have said is:

    i) A is no more or less ‘grammatical’ than B.

    ii) Therefore people should stop saying A is more correct than B.

    Now, not being a linguist I can hardly comment on the veracity of (i), but there is plainly no reason why (i) should imply (ii). Why is it not possible that A should be better than B for no reason of ‘grammar’?

    You might very well say, ‘in what other way could it be better?’ but that is not the point. If you claim to be descriptivist with language, then you can hardly be proscriptive about value judgements, which it seems to me is what you are doing.

    Musicologists are forever doing this sort of thing. Value judgements are bad, it is said, which is plainly a self-evacuating statement. But actually, like anything else, value judgements are made and can no more be rejected than can all sentences with less words in. The task of the observer is to chronicle them all.

    Love Bruv x

    • Dearest Bruv,

      Yes, part i) of your summary is what I wrote. However, it was not my intention to make a value judgment about making value judgments (linguists honestly aren’t interested in that, why would we be?), I was basically trying to highlight that it is nonsensical to talk of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ when it comes to language, for the reasons outlined in the post. 🙂

  2. Why is it nonsensical to talk of better or worse language? It remains perfectly possible for language to be either, irrespective of grammar or only partly because of it. It might, for example, be ‘better’ to be ungrammatical on occasion. But for the most part it might be better to use fewer over less for no reason other than it’s nicer. There is no reason in the world why, just because we can say, ‘people trying to ape social station prefer ‘fewer”, it is not also better.

    What I am trying to say is the two are separate categories. You can’t object to someone objecting (even if it’s on pseudo-linguistic grounds) without confusing the categories.

    • I think it depends what you mean by ‘better’ or ‘worse’. In terms of communicating a particular proposition, ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ or whatever other social variable are no ‘worse’ than each other. They both do the job. You might like to argue that a particular situation might, in your view, warrant one variant over the other. But that makes the variant you choose, linguistically speaking, no ‘better’ at its job. It might, stylistically, be more appropriate, but that’s not really the same thing.

      By what standard (and I don’t mean linguistic standard here) might you judge whether something is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in a particular situation? Can you give me an example? I don’t follow your logic.

  3. Well I can’t think of an example either, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. My argument is (once again) for the retention of a placeholder for such an example.

    I am always amazed by linguists who are very keen to say that language is not logic (fine) but as soon as someone jumps up with a non-linguistic philosophical argument about words (such as a value judgement, which is manifestly philosophical or aesthetic and not linguistic), linguists respond by saying, ‘but that’s not how language works!’ as if logic was in fact linguistic after all. I am simply arguing for the possibility that either of less or fewer might be (not necessarily is, but rather might be) philosophically better, quite in spite of the contemporary and historical linguistic equivalence you demonstrate. If language and philosophy really are different, then this has to be possible; if they’re not, then linguists really ought to stop suggesting language doesn’t form thought.

    I am not really persuaded by your suggestion that ‘better/worse’ is not a value judgement in this case. A contextual one it may well be, but raising the language of relative goodness is, I think, evaluating whether you like it or not. As with any academics, when linguists get ideological about their subject (‘this is our job and it’s why we know what we’re talking about) they tend also to get ideological about their material (‘value judgements are bad’) and so make errors. But as a matter of fact value judgements are not necessarily either good or bad; they are simply there, which, I suggest, might very well point to the fact that there *is* a philosophical distinction between less/fewer that is not identical to the linguistic distinction.

    Bruv x

    • I still think it depends on what you mean by ‘better’ or ‘worse’, unless I’m totally not understanding what you’re getting at. I can’t think of any social/geographical linguistic variable that ‘better’ conveys a particular proposition (in a linguistic sense, i.e. meaning). Languages are almost always systematic about how they encode meaning. I guess that’s what I meant in my original post when talking of value judgments, and I think that’s what people often confuse when talking about ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in language. As for the other issues you’ve raised: I am no more an authority than you are.

      ‘But as a matter of fact value judgements are not necessarily good or bad’ – to me, that sounds like a value judgment by the back door, brother dear. It seems one descends into the abyss of circularity with value judgments.

  4. Awesome post, Victoria. I agree with most of what you write.

    For people to be angry about a language changing is silly. Your examples of the OED adding ‘LOL’ and ‘laser’ to acknowledge changes in the language are quite true.

    But as to the “bout of ‘puristic passion'” about the language, I’ll quote Deborah Cameron (herself a linguist) as a counter.

    “[T]he overt anti-prescriptivist stance of linguists is in not unlike the prescriptivism they criticize.” Or as I have argued elsewhere linguists are dogmatic in the anti-dogmatism.

    As you are interested in syntax let me use the following example from Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent:

    “Coffee I can always drink, so pour me”

    To me, that sentence is a mess. And in regard to its communicative efficacy, I’d say it is rather low. It is not an example of the language changing, but rather it is an example of a poor understanding the language in general. According to Lippi-Green; “In terms of linguistic grammaticality, [that sentence is a] perfectly functional utterance in English.”

    I am of the opinion that the communicative efficacy of the English language would be increased if more people adhered to the rules. Furthermore, everyone that undertakes a study of grammar would benefit in that they would get invaluable cognitive exercise, and have learned a way to systematize and quickly recall a large amount of arcane information, a skill that would carryover into every aspect of their lives.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting! You (and DC) are absolutely right that some have been as dogmatic about anti-prescriptivism as the pro-prescriptive people, and it’s never good to be dogmatic if it means being rude, or deeming others’ views unworthy of engaging with. However, I wonder if DC’s comment is best understood knowing that Prof Cameron’s own subject (Sociolinguistics) has been characterized more often than not by generativists and others as ‘butterfly-collecting’, so she’s got a bit of an axe to grind? But I don’t know the context of her comment. And most linguists that I’ve come across think value judgments of *any* kind are not fitting to the study of language, i.e. it makes just as little sense to say some utterance is particularly ‘good’ at communicating something as it is to say it is ‘bad’.

      As for the example from the Lippi-Green, I must say I don’t know the book. The sentence in question is pretty bad for me too. But then so is e.g. ‘He done good’. The latter is considered ‘grammatical’ in African American Vernacular English, as I outlined in the post. It could just be a question of ideolect, when we react to things that seem really ungrammatical.

      However, I have another proposal. I don’t know the context of the phrase Lippi-Green quotes. She may not provide context. Often, context makes things seem more grammatical then they do at first blush (which is part of the problem of grammaticality, because how can you measure it if there’s a sliding scale?) If I take the first part of the utterance, ‘coffee I can always drink’, and put it in a contrastive context, it sounds loads better to me:

      ‘I can’t drink much juice, as it does bad things to my stomach. Coffee I can always drink, though, so you can give me some of that.’

      Does it sound better to you there? It does to me. Contrasting things often plays around with the word order in English. As for the ‘pour me’, bit, I’d have to say, to be grammtical for me, I’d need to have some kind of direct object, like ‘some’, or ‘a cup’. But not all verbs are like that in English. ‘Fine’, for example, doesn’t need a direct object (‘The government fined the company.’) It could be that for the speaker Lippi-Green bases her statement on, the verb ‘pour’ no longer needs to have a DO. We see verbs change their valency a fair bit. Now it’s possible for most English speakers to say ‘Enjoy!’ without having to stipulate a DO, though it still sounds bad when it’s not in the imperative (e.g. ‘*I really like horseriding, I really enjoy.’)

      When you say that ‘the communicative efficacy of the English language would be increased if more people adhered to the rules’, you’re right, because basically what you’re saying is that if we all speak the same variety, we’ll all understand each other better. Naturally that’s the case. I have no opinion on the matter, as my job is just to look at what people say… I’ll leave it to others to come up with what people ought to say.

      Just some thoughts anyway, hope they’re helpful!

      • Ha Ha! If only we all spoke the same dialect…

        How much of dialect is contrived, though?

        I was driving through Georgia in 2002 and I stopped at a convenience store. I grabbed the things I wanted and proceeded to the cashier. She rang up the items and said in the slushiest of southern drawls; “Gaa;v;alknsdv;asdfja;svn.”

        That is, her speech was unintelligible. I think she spotted me as a Yankee (something I noticed in the south) and laid the accent on thick on purpose. So I pressed her, feigning ignorance. I asked repeatedly; “What? What? What?” Eventually I was able to get her to speak with the clearest television/radio broadcaster pronunciation.

        I’ve tried it elsewhere since then. North Dakota, N.E. and central Ohio, upstate New York, Chicago, Southern California. It’s amazing what you can get people to do when you pretend you’re hard of hearing or don’t understand them.

        Anyhow, thanks for the reply. I hope I didn’t offend you or linguistics with my earlier comment and/or blog. I certainly don’t think the work of linguists is like butterfly collecting.

        If so, then all the recording I’ve done recently was a waste.

  5. I’m not sure what you understand by contrived? If you’re referring to the fact that some speakers vary their speech according to who their interlocutor is, then you’re right. Usually, people try to conform linguistically. But it’s not uncommon to use language to highlight differences between you and the person you’re talking to.

    No offence taken in the least! I’m pleased to have found such a willing commenter!

  6. What is there to understand?

    The woman, when pressed, dropped her phony accent and spoke in the standard or a close approximation.

    She did not try to speak in my dialect.

    I think that this underscores my original point. The invention of grammaticality is just as arbitrary as Thou Shalt Not Split an Infinitive. It does give linguists a sort of false moral high ground unobtainable to anyone other than linguists, in my opinion.

    The linguist purports to not render value judgments, except they have in regard to prescriptive grammar. A recent search of Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts yielded 8,500 scholarly articles written since 2000 with Standard English as the subject.

    The authors either claim SE does not exist, or is a set of myths and ephemeral. Either way, linguists are firmly entrenched in the debate and have clearly rendered a value judgment.

    My favourite quote is from Alastair Pennycook’s review of Bex and Watt’s “Standard English: The Widening Debate”

    “Despite claims to be engaged only in description, therefore,
    many linguists operate with assumptions about grammaticality, uniformity,
    and spoken and written languages that are far closer to a form of prescriptive standardization than they would ever care to acknowledge.”

    Anywho, I enjoyed your post about Empiricism, God and Language. I’m afraid I have nothing to add to the discussion about it, though.

    Also, the post about German ‘ge-‘ was interesting to me as I am quite unfamiliar with the language. I took Latin and French, and learned some Spanish. I hadn’t considered German’s influence on English that closely, so your post yielded some insight for me.

  7. Great post and discussion. I think what Brother is getting at back in his first comment is essentially the classic is-ought problem; that is, you can make descriptive statements about behavior, but it’s not clear how you can reach conclusions about what’s right or wrong based on those facts.

    Prescriptivists look at the facts and say, “Just because everybody says it doesn’t make it correct.” Linguists look at the facts and say, “But everybody says it, so it must be correct.” But really, all you can say based on the facts is that it’s grammatical (for a certain sense of the word) but stigmatized among certain speakers. (Which is essentially what you said, I think.) But a lot of linguists try to take it further and say that it shouldn’t be stigmatized, which is where we often fall into the trap of making value judgements about others’ value judgements, as doubleipa noted.

    And I second the recommendation of Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene and Bex and Watts’s Standard English: The Widening Debate. Both are excellent books that shed a lot of light on the ideologies surrounding correctness in language.

    • Thanks Jonathan for your comment. I’m not sure that I as a linguist would say ‘people say it therefore it’s correct’. People do actually make speech errors a fair bit. It’s more that this particular issue is so well attested that it’s almost a systematic part of than grammar of many native English speakers. Naturally it’s open to debate if it belongs to the Standard (and is therefore ‘correct’), though i obviously make the case in the post that it’s probably considered standard these days.

      Thanks for the book recommendations. I’ve not read them, though I find it odd that Prof Cameron has taken up this topic in her work. Not that that’s a bad thing at all.

  8. Without getting into the main debate, I do feel anyone calling themselves a linguist should know better than to believe the persistent old myth that “posh” is an acronym! Acronyms are actually a very recent method of word-formation, but they seem to figure in every other folk etymology. Recommended reading: “Port Out Starboard Home” by Michael Quinion. Which is apparently published in the US as “Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds”.

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