November 26th, 2008
To vet / less and fewer / the couple were or was?
by Barbara Wallraff
Carole Cooper, of Novi, Mich., writes: “During the recent election, candidates were ‘vetted.’ Now the president-elect is ‘vetting’ potential staffers and cabinet members. What does ‘vet’ mean? Where does the word come from?”
Dear Carole: You know the phrase “cattle call,” meaning a general audition? It and the verb “vet” have a thing or two in common. This “vet” comes from “veterinarian,” whose Latin root means “having to do with cattle.” (The other word that “vet” abbreviates, “veteran,”comes from a different Latin word, which means “old.” Sorry, vets -- I’m just reporting!) By the 1600s, the meaning of “veterinarian” broadened to include other domestic animals, mainly horses. Then, a couple of hundred years later, people started shortening “veterinarian” to “vet,” using “vet” as military slang for a medical officer and turning the noun into a verb for examining an animal, a person or even a thing.
Ann Calderwood, of Hampden, Maine, writes: “Have we passed the point where we can object to the use of ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’? There’s an annoying television commercial for a bladder-control product that promises ‘less interruptions.’ Every time I hear it, the hairs rise on the back of my neck. It’s only one of many examples where ‘less’ is used when ‘fewer’ is correct.”
Dear Ann: Frankly, the very idea of bladder-control products raises the hair on the back of my neck! But the grammar of that ad doesn’t help.
Elinor Lyon, of Georgetown, Ohio, writes: “Which is correct: ‘The couple were expecting their first child’ or ‘The couple was expecting their first child’ or ‘The couple was expecting its first child’?”
‘The couple was expecting their first child’ or ‘The couple was expecting its first child’?”
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.