excellent well, you are a fishmonger

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“The less/fewer distinction isn’t really that hard to learn, but it would be much easier to not have to bother. I can’t think of any situations in which the existence of the two different words is actually helpful to our understanding of what’s being communicated. Native speakers of the English language have a perverse tendency to take pride in the difficulty of our language, but it’s not actually a good thing.” ~ Matt Yglesias stating his case for “less words”

Okay, but the first problem with this is that we would have to do away entirely with one of the words – either less or few (not fewer – we’d pretty much have to ditch “few” itself).  So then what would you use?  For instance, “few” is not interchangeable with “less” even if we did rewrite the rules on less/fewer.  Each word has its own double meanings (less = minus, for instance).  Far easier, I think, to just remember that fewer refers to a measurable item (apples) and less refers to an immeasurable item (patience).  Take out either word and you’re left with a less accurate description of what it is you’re actually speaking about.

This may sound double-plus-good to Yglesias, but I rather like having the ability to more specifically address what it is I’m talking about.  Fewer words mean that we have less of an ability to express what it is we mean exactly. 

Let’s try that again.

Less words mean that we have less of an ability to express what it is we mean exactly.

One more time….

Fewer words mean that we have fewer of an ability to express what it is we mean exactly.

See, the “less/less” example makes the sentence redundant and awkward.  The “fewer/fewer” makes it nonsensical.

So I say the more the merrier when it comes to this glorious English language of ours.  I want all sorts of words.  Let’s make them up. Let’s steal them from other languages.  Let’s give them new meanings.  Let’s give them old meanings.  Let’s give them double and triple meanings.  Let’s spell them with lots of silent letters.

Matt thinks the difficulty of the English language is not in fact a “good thing” but what he leaves out is its enormous capacity to evolve.  It is an adaptable tongue.  It is the new international lingua franca. It winds itself into creoles and pidgins with terrible ease and efficiency.  We have no Académie française to guide us – our adaptation is of the laissez faire variety.

And this means we need to preserve our lexicon and cultivate its expansion by promoting words – not by regulation or rules, and certainly not through trimming down!  I realize Yglesias is (mostly) joking here, but this is coming from a guy who wrote a post recently on the need for a national curriculum for goodness sakes…

One more thing before you go:

“The statistics of English are astonishing. Of all the world’s languages (which now number some 2,700), it is arguably the richest in vocabulary. The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words; and a further half-million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued. According to traditional estimates, neighboring German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, including such Franglais as le snacque-barre and le hit-parade.”  ~ Robert McCrum, author of The Story of English

That’s quite a few….

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13 thoughts on “excellent well, you are a fishmonger

  1. Less words mean that we have less of an ability to express what it is we mean exactly.

    See, the “less/less” example makes the sentence redundant and awkward.

    If the redundancy is two lesses, then that’s not really a matter of the word choice, it’s a matter of the example you chose. After all, you could just as well say ‘Fewer apples means that we’ll need fewer baskets to carry them’ which has the same redundancy.

    I really don’t mind the ‘less words’ example, even though I’m normally a lexicographical prude, because there’s really no threat to comprehension. Is there really any ambiguity about what ‘less words’ means?

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  2. I think the whole “arguably the richest in vocabulary” thing is a bit preening. After all, the English-speaking world has had a particular fascination with cataloguing vocabulary and language, and with recording the rich variety of spoken language in writing more generally. It may not be as prescriptivist as the Academie tradition, but it’s a tradition in its own right, and it seems rather silly to puff ourselves up as the Great Heteroglossiacs when the only reason we can count all these words to begin with is that we’re more keen than some other cultures have been to write them down. (And, importantly, that no one’s burned our libraries, prevented us from teaching our native language to our children, etc.)

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  3. I would always, without exception, want more words to choose from.

    Imagine having to give up “ghost” for “spirit”. Or “spirit” for “ghost”. The one is a stark, anglo-saxon word with dark connotations while the other is a light greek word with intellectual connotations but they mean damn near the same thing… but they still aren’t synonyms.

    Even words that are synonymous, well… some have one syllable, some two, the rest more. Those that have multiple syllables, some words have the emphasis on the first syllable, the rest on the others.

    Now that you’ve imagined at least half of your vocabulary being removed, imagine being forced to write a haiku or sonnet under these new rules. I shudder.

    (Is there any thing that I’m allowed to have more of than anybody else without you lefties wanting to take half away for the good of society? It’s not even money this time, it’s the list of words that make up my vocabulary.)

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  4. I think English’s tendency to have redundant vocabulary is more than redeemed by the professional/class/ethnic awareness we gain by it. None of the more sensible languages get such fine distinctions as “puke” (used by frat boys and teutons) and “vomit” (used by doctors and Romans). All those pesky latin and germanic roots translate into a much more powerful ability to convey approval and disapproval, or to mark off the scientific from the mundane.

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  5. I would always, without exception, want more words to choose from.

    Yes, but keep in mind that the purported precision of the less/fewer rule doesn’t actually increase the beauty and flexibility of the language. After all, if you always have to use one in certain contexts and always the other in others, that’s no flexibility at all. But contra Yglesias’ solution of getting rid of one, I’d say keep both and relax about the proper distribution.

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  6. Far easier, I think, to just remember that fewer refers to a measurable item (apples) and less refers to an immeasurable item (patience).

    This too is incorrect. Salt is measurable (in teaspoons or whatever), but we don’t say “fewer salt.” We say “less salt.”

    Fewer is used with discrete, countable items. Less is used with uncountables or intangibles.

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  7. Jason:

    This too is incorrect. Salt is measurable (in teaspoons or whatever), but we don’t say “fewer salt.” We say “less salt.”

    Not true at all. We say “fewer tablespoons of salt” or – if we aren’t actually counting – “less salt.” The one is obviously measurable, the other is not – it is, to some degree, abstract or vague. It is not in units. Again it is not so much “intangibles” but the lack of units that matter. Nobody counts salt by the grain – if we did, we’d say “fewer grains of salt.” But we do count souls as though they were normal people, thus ‘fewer.”

    sidereal – I disagree. I think being able to distinguish between non-unit and unit quantities is important. I wish we had the equivalent for “more.”

    H.C. Johns – excellent point!

    Jaybird:

    (Is there any thing that I’m allowed to have more of than anybody else without you lefties wanting to take half away for the good of society? It’s not even money this time, it’s the list of words that make up my vocabulary.)

    Nope.

    Dara –

    it seems rather silly to puff ourselves up as the Great Heteroglossiacs when the only reason we can count all these words to begin with is that we’re more keen than some other cultures have been to write them down. (And, importantly, that no one’s burned our libraries, prevented us from teaching our native language to our children, etc.)

    Fair enough, though I think it’s fine to take a little pride in one’s native tongue. It is a remarkable spongy language. We’ve got lots of French and Spanish and Arabic and German (etc.) all mixed in together and new hybrids popping up every day. And besides, I like puffing myself up as a Great Heteroglossiac from time to time….

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  8. Not true at all. We say “fewer tablespoons of salt” or – if we aren’t actually counting – “less salt.” The one is obviously measurable, the other is not – it is, to some degree, abstract or vague. It is not in units. Again it is not so much “intangibles” but the lack of units that matter. Nobody counts salt by the grain – if we did, we’d say “fewer grains of salt.” But we do count souls as though they were normal people, thus ‘fewer.”

    But this follows my rule! “Countability” (and not tangibility) was what I’d settled on after my correction. Units are countable.

    But it’s not measurability that determines things, because “salt” is measurable, even while we still don’t say “fewer salt.”

    Consider that the units here are the referent, not the salt — if we were to diagram the phrase, “of salt” would be a mere modifier.

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  9. “For instance, “few” is not interchangeable with “less” even if we did rewrite the rules on less/fewer. ”

    This happens to be an excellent example because it’s not just some arbitrary piece of lexicon, it happens to demonstrate a basic structural feature of English grammar. English, like other European languages, has a rule that says nouns referring to physical objects or substances must belong to one of two lexical categories- mass mouns or count nouns. The one exceptions is animals treated as prey or food*, but there is a strict rule that covers that. Anyway, this rule is how these languages deal with an aspect of the physical world – there are other ways you can make a rule to handle this, such as treating all nouns as mass nouns and requiring the use of measure word when you want to treat a noun as a count noun (Chinese and just about every language around the northern Pacific).

    English uses that uses that mechanism, on top of the count noun/mass noun covert category mechanism – cattle / two head of cattle; milk / a gallon of milk. When you forego the count word, an still use the noun as a count noun, it changes the meaning to reflect a type of that referent – “anice glass of wine” / “a very good wine”

    And people complain that English doesn’t have any rules! It has rules, and they are mostly logical, unlike that BS about noun genders that adds nothing to a sentence.

    The less/fewer distinction reflects that structural feature of the language. Chinese (Mandarin) doesn’t make that distinction because it would be contrary to its structure.

    * You can say “I see a bear” (count noun) and you also say “Are there any bear up there?”(mass noun). There is a big semantic difference between “Do you have any crab ?”(mass noun) and “Do you have crabs?” (count noun)

    “Consider that the units here are the referent, not the salt — if we were to diagram the phrase, “of salt” would be a mere modifier.”

    Which is a very confusing and misleading way to analyze that construction.

    There is no parallelsim between these two uses of “cup””

    1. I drink from a cup

    2. I need a cup of sugar?

    In these sentences, cup is the focus of one verb and sugar is clearly the focus of the other verb.

    “it seems rather silly to puff ourselves up as the Great Heteroglossiacs when the only reason we can count all these words to begin with is that we’re more keen than some other cultures have been to write them down.”

    Umm, no. German is at least as well documented as English, and there were german dictionaries before there were English dictionaries. There have been dictionatries of Swedish for a long time now. The reason that the English lexicon is 20 times the size of Swedish has to do with differences in cultural attitudes towards language itself, and the diffenrent histories of these cultures. Swedish language is like any other aspect of Swedish design – sleek, elegant, functional and minimal. English is like a cottage garden, with weeds and flowers from every continent.

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  10. I said: “Consider that the units here are the referent, not the salt — if we were to diagram the phrase, “of salt” would be a mere modifier.”

    Jim said: “Which is a very confusing and misleading way to analyze that construction.

    “There is no parallelsim between these two uses of ‘cup’

    “1. I drink from a cup

    “2. I need a cup of sugar?”

    Given that you didn’t provide an example in which my approach would fail, how is it “misleading”?

    Also, it’s not clear what the “focus” of either of your verbs are. Their objects on the other hand are clear — a cup in both cases. I hated learning sentence diagramming, and say what you will about it, but I really think it helps here.

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