“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….