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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.

These days the verb “vet” doesn’t get much use in relation to animals: “I had my cat vetted” sounds strange. But, Carole, you’re right that it’s common in relation to politicians and job candidates. This use started out being jokey. Maybe because there’s no other single word that conveys the same meaning, it has turned into the standard, serious term for reviewing a candidate’s record.

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.

Granted, it is tricky of “more” to have two different opposites: “fewer” and “less.” This is one of those little niceties, however, that show that a person knows her or his way around the language. As you’re obviously aware, “fewer” is for things we can count, so it’s the right word to use with most plurals -- for instance, “items” and “interruptions.” “Less” is for things that come in amounts, not numbers -- for instance, “stuff” and “trouble.”

Until you wrote, I thought we were making progress with this distinction. In a supermarket I go to, the sign on the express lane now reads “10 items or fewer.” Evidently we’ve made, ahem, less progress in fewer situations than I dared hope.

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’?”
Dear Elinor: “Couple” can be either singular or plural, but a given use of the word shouldn’t try to be both -- it ought to be one or the other. “Its first child” sounds creepy, so let’s go with “their first child.” Because “their” refers to “couple” and is plural, the verb should be plural too: “The couple were expecting their first child.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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