<< back to the archive list

May 20th, 2009

Less and fewer / him receiving

by Barbara Wallraff

Nancy Burke, of Ballston Spa, N.Y., writes: “I’m horrified at the increasing misuse of the word ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer.’ News people and TV commercials are the main culprits. The worst is a TNT network promo in which they say, ‘More movie, less commercials.’ For me, hearing that ‘less’ is like raking one’s nails over the blackboard! I’ve e-mailed TNT about this, but got no response. Any thoughts?”

And Christine Galbraith, of Southfield, Mich., writes: “The following appeared in today’s newspaper, in the ‘Celebrations Michigan’ column: ‘The family of ... is proud to announce the celebration of him receiving his Master’s degree in education administration from Concordia University ...’ Should it not have read ‘at HIS receiving ...’? I always cringe at that misuse, but it is especially appalling in this instance.”

Dear Nancy and Christine: Sometimes -- make that often -- I worry that this column preaches to the converted. Of course I agree with you, Nancy, that “less” should be “fewer” in that ... despite the anti-commercial message, it’s a commercial, no? And I agree with you, Christine, that what’s being celebrated is not so much “him,” the graduate, as his receipt of a degree. But it’s my job to care about stuff like this. Why should everyone care?

The easiest case to make against misuses of English is that they confuse people. Someone who, for instance, means “I am not amused” but says “I am not bemused” is going to, well, bemuse anyone who knows that “bemuse” means “puzzle” or “confuse.”

The next easiest case to make is that misuses have the potential to confuse people down the road. “Unique” is a good case in point. Although it formerly meant “one of a kind” and nothing but, it has been used so often to mean just “unusual” that there’s usually no telling what a given instance of it means now. This kind of misuse makes us less able to communicate precisely with one another. And Lord knows, our communication is none too precise as it is.

I don’t believe, though, that we can claim to be confused by “less” instead of “fewer” or “him” instead of “his” -- at least not in the instances you’re objecting to. I don’t even see how these misuses are likely to lead to future confusion. So what’s the problem? Why do things like these matter, at least to you and me?

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve concluded that what makes us care is the very instinct that allowed us to learn English in the first place. As children, to have a command of English that was even acceptable, we needed to absorb a huge number of fine points. (Consider two I discussed in last week’s column: It’s not “should have went” but “should have gone,” not “foots” but “feet.” The wrong versions won’t confuse anyone if we say them, but still they’ll make us sound like idiots.) The more fine points we take in and remember, the better educated we sound, and are. When is it time to stop remembering the ones we know and even absorbing more? As long as that instinct is alive in us -- and I’m grateful that it is -- surely the answer is never.

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

<< back to the archive list