Monday, 6 June 2016

Amazing Language

“The ideal of “timeless English” is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river.” (C.S. Lewis)

“Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton, published around 1779, but an unknown writer added another verse:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

It irritates some people who think "fewer" should be used instead of "less". This is an exploration of that verse, and that rule.

Wikipedia has this to say on this verse:

“Another verse was first recorded in Harriet Beecher Stowe's immensely influential 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Three verses were emblematically sung by Tom in his hour of deepest crisis. He sings the sixth and fifth verses in that order, and Stowe included another verse not written by Newton that had been passed down orally in African American communities for at least 50 years. It was originally one of between 50 to 70 verses of a song titled "Jerusalem, My Happy Home" that first appeared in a 1790 book called A Collection of Sacred Ballads”

This is very interesting because American English often preserves the older forms of English found in Britain. The distinction between “fewer” and “less” appears to be a relatively modern one. Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes:

“As far as we have been able to discover, the received rule originated in 1770 as a comment on 'less': This Word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. "No Fewer than a Hundred" appears to me, not only more elegant than "No less than a Hundred," but more strictly proper. (Baker 1770). Baker's remarks about 'fewer' express clearly and modestly – 'I should think,' 'appears to me' – his own taste and preference....Notice how Baker's preference has been generalized and elevated to an absolute status and his notice of contrary usage has been omitted."

The “Pain in the English” website notes this too:

“According to the OED, people have been using less for countable nouns since the dawn of English, and it only seems to have become a golden rule after certain grammarians latched onto the observation of one Robert Baker, who in 1770 remarked that ‘No fewer than a hundred seems to me not only more elegant than No less than a hundred, but more strictly proper.’, while admitting that less ‘is most commonly used when speaking of a number’.”

And it goes on to explain how a suggestion for elegance became a prescribed rule:

“It was used like this in at least two influential nineteenth century grammars - ‘less hopes’, ‘less parts or portions’ - Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners, and ‘No less than five verbs’ - William Cobbett’s A Grammar of the English Language.”

As the writer notes:

“The two co-existed; you could have "less coins" (the opposite of having "more coins") or "fewer coins". The fewer/less argument results from deliberate and relentless "schoolmastering": engineering a false relationship between two entirely different words where none previously existed.”

And it looks as if the distinction is breaking down, as David Crystal notes in “Grumbling about Grammar”

“Some changes take place because a grammatical contrast is not supported by a clear difference of meaning. One instance is the ‘rule' which tells you to use less/least before non-count nouns (less cake) and fewer/fewest before count nouns (fewer cakes).”

“This has been breaking down for a long time, with less/least coming to be used for both types: There are less apples on the tree this year. He made the least mistakes. There's no clear meaning difference, so people have gradually begun to lose their sense of what the source of the contrast is. Left to itself, the language would stop using the contrast, after a while. But, of course, people are very reluctant to leave language to itself. They feel it needs caring for. So they complain about the change, in the hope of reversing the trend.”

The problem is that the rule is not consistent anyway. Good language flows, and doesn’t sound jarring to the ears. Steven Pinker observes what happens if you take a rule and apply it consistently everywhere:

“The sign over supermarket express checkout lanes, "Ten Items or Less", is a grammatical error, they say, and as a result of their carping upscale supermarkets have replaced the signs with "Ten Items or Fewer". By this logic, off licences should refuse to sell beer to customers who are "fewer than 21 years old" and law-abiding motorists should drive at "fewer than 70 miles an hour".”

Mark Forsyth applies the rule about language flow, which he calls Sound Wrong to A Native Speaker (SWANS), and shows how one way it goes wrong, one way it sounds right. First he checks if you can use fewer for amount.

  • I like him fewer.
  • I am fewer happy today than yesterday.
  • I am fewer tall than you.

He notes that:

“These are just plain wrong. And importantly they're not wrong because a style guide says so. They just Sound Wrong to A Native Speaker (SWANS). If a foreign friend were to talk like that you would giggle or gently correct them. This is not some rule known only to an elite few. It's SWANS, and SWANS is the most important rule of all.”

So, what happens if you use less for numbers? Can you get the same effect?

  • I've drunk less pints than you.
  • There are less than five children here.
  • The answer must be less than five.
  • 10 items or less.

And he observes that:

“Now, the thing about these is that though I know that the style guide tells me they're wrong, they aren't wrong in a SWANS way. They don't make you jump out of your skin. You would never be so rude as to correct a foreigner on this. The style guide says it's wrong, but it doesn't feel wrong.”

And then he has examples of counting which sound wrong with fewer, which the style guide says should be fine:

  • That's one fewer mouth to feed.
  • If we go this route, the journey will be twenty minutes fewer.
  • I have a hundred pounds. He has fewer.

As he noted, he began to find “loads of examples where fewer sounded wrong when applied to a number, and less sounded right”.

Now of course, purists of the prescriptive nature then start making exceptions to that rule, but that is a post-event fix, what Imre Lakatos called “Exception Barring”, a crude attempt to save a hypothesis from falsification.

Exception barring refers to the process of treating counterexamples as legitimate exceptions to the conjecture or theorem, but avoiding them by reducing the scope of the conjecture or theorem. It simply is not a good scientific way to proceed. It smacks of an attempt to shut a stable door after the horse has bolted, and hope it will appear authoritative, when it has no basis in fact. It is a way of saving appearances.

Forsyth concludes, after also looking at how the King James Bible and Shakespeare use the terms that:

“You can't use fewer for amount. But you can use less for number if you feel like it. And you can get away with not using fewer at all.”

When you look at Sounds Wrong to A Native Speaker, with the verse with which we began, we would have:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no fewer days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

With the tune, and the rhyme of the verse, that just grates. 

Language is amazing, and too precious to be spoilt by pedants who have little or no idea how it works, and how poetry works either.

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