for Shark: less is more

Yesterday, having spent two hours shoveling snow in our driveway (twice, since the city plow guy was waiting for me to finish the first time before he came by exactly one minute after I entered our house), on my Facebook Live Feed, I noticed an exchange on one of my friend’s pages, concluding with this remark: “Would Bill Lumbergh have said this to Peter? Would Initech even existed under Obama’s budget? I don’t think so. We need more companies like Initech not less.” Aside from the issue that I couldn’t figure out what Office Space had to do with Bush administration gutless “tax cuts” expiring, the grammatical gaffe forced me (unwillingly, I hereby attest) to respond. The writer meant “fewer” for his final word, not “less.”

First, it was a productive exchange for me. I didn’t grasp the Peter/Lundbergh references, so I quickly googled it all and learned about a movie I should have enjoyed thirteen years ago, relishing Mike Judge’s genius as much as the rest of us corporate serfs. Now we’ll see if Movies America has it…

Furthermore, I acquired yet one more Facebook former-student friend out of the discussion and got the opportunity to read a really well reasoned and well written response by an old friend.

However, our purpose today is not to revisit old friends or acknowledge new ones (or discuss Facebook or politco-economics)—all of which could result from the previous paragraphs, but to inveigh against the abuse of the good old word “less” and promote the appropriate use of its fellow traveler, “fewer.”

Less” is a word with a long history, extending way back to Old English (c. 450-1100 CE). Unfortunately its appropriate/accepted use has been deeply corrupted in the past generation. We have two words for a reduced amount/number: less and fewer. Each has a distinct meaning. One can have less of something (a unitary amount), but one has fewer things (plural units). Always. Without fail. In every single case. No exceptions.

One can have less of something (a unitary amount), but one has fewer things (plural units). Always. Without fail. In every single case. No exceptions.

No one (except my wife, who now grinds her teeth every time a newscaster says something like “less state troopers”) seems to know this elementary bit of usage these days. And I know, I have addressed this issue before, but it bears some attention.

Why is it that no one knows the difference between “fewer” and “less?” I think it’s the same reason that no one (including often me) distinguishes correctly between “as” and “like.” The reason is advertising.

Back in the Sixties, when tobacco companies could still advertise on television and radio, we all heard how “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” And lots of  English teachers and media grammar pundits railed that the “like” was incorrect: it should be “as.” The Winston slogan is a complex sentence, and “as” is a subordinating conjunction to join the two clauses of the slogan (“Winston tastes” and “a cigarette should”). “Like” alternatively is just a preposition and cannot join clauses; it can only begin a prepositional phrase (meaning be followed by a noun that is the object of the preposition: as in “like hell”). Witness the authority of the Apple Dictionary on my computer:

LIKE preposition
1 having the same characteristics or qualities as; similar to : there were other suits like mine in the shop | they were like brothers | she looked nothing like Audrey Hepburn.
• in the manner of; in the same way or to the same degree as : he was screaming like a banshee | you must run like the wind.
• in a way appropriate to : students were angry at being treated like children.
• such as one might expect from; characteristic of : just like you to put a damper on people’s enjoyment.
• used in questions to ask about the characteristics or nature of someone or something : What is it like to be a tuna fisherman? | What’s she like?
2 used to draw attention to the nature of an action or event : I apologize for coming over unannounced like this | why are you talking about me like that?
3 such as; for example : the cautionary vision of works like Animal Farm and 1984.

By the end of the Seventies, we seemed to have surrendered to the pressure of social ignorance, and “like” had evolved into a legitimate (kind of?) subordinating conjunction. The Apple Dictionary thinks so now, about thirty years later:

conjunction INFORMAL
1 in the same way that; as : people who change countries like they change clothes.
2 as though; as if : I felt like I’d been kicked by a camel.

But notice that “informal.” Even now, thirty years on (and more since the change began), it’s still not quite truly “correct” to use “like” as a conjunction.

Now I am not saying that evil advertisers actually started the change/addition in like’s part of speech. I have heard that the trend to use like in place of as extends back to early in the twentieth century. However, advertisers made use of the incorrectness. I mean, it is very likely that the Winston advertising copywriters wanted to create an ungrammatical sentence.

Why would they do such a thing? Because they wanted the Winston slogan to be nonsense―good-sounding but ultimately meaningless nonsense.

The same issue applies with the much less acceptable use of “less” to mean “fewer.” We have all seen products and ads for products that herald “less calories” (and sometimes―correctly―“less fat”). Why would the advertising geniuses choose the incorrect “less” instead of the thoroughly proper “fewer” with a plural like “calories?” Two reasons: because it sounds more casual (and therefore in this weird reality in which we live therefore more honest or real―therefore more believable to consumers) and because the phrase “less calories” means nothing (being ungrammatical).

Advertising doesn’t want to make sense because if an ad can avoid genuine sense or content then the advertiser (creator of the advertising or creator of the product) cannot be sued when the promise is not true.

Guinness: fewer calories (click and see)

“Less calories” means nothing. If I buy a product that says “less calories,” believing it has less impact on my diet (has fewer calories), it’s not the product’s fault (or the advertising company’s) if I have been misled and the product actually contains more empty non-nutrition. I told the lie to myself.

And of course “less calories,” being ungrammatical, sounds cooler to the ill-educated masses than the hoity-toity uptight grammatically correct “fewer” sounds. The wrong phrase just sounds “better.” (I have asked students over the years, and they almost invariably agree: “Yes, Mr. Burrow, ‘less’ sounds better.”)

Of course, we should take this attack on advertising one step further. Less than what? A hoary advertising trick is the noncomparative comparison (as Andrew Mass Media students have learned since 1977), in which a statement begins a comparison but never finishes by stating what the product is being compared to.

“My product is better.” Than what? A kick in the head?

“Less calories” than what? (Double nonsense going on here.) A huge vat of lard?

See the gimmick? By not saying, the advertiser gets us to finish the thought in whatever way we finish it. Or we learn not to finish comparisons at all. Listening to advertising’s abuse of our language, youngsters learn to speak (think?) in those nonsensical terms. And that’s sad.

On Saturday, Janet and I watched The Invention of Lying, which includes a funny section on truthful advertising, and also explores honesty, dishonesty and invention. There’s a philosophical problem about never lying. How can one invent if one only knows/speaks what has always been? On the other hand, dishonesty is a barrier in human relations and communication. Lying (and advertising—same thing really) blunts language and limits communication.

Language should be cherished and its ways studied and known. Because language should communicate―to genuinely share ideas, to join our inner selves. An admittedly imperfect tool, language ultimately is our only way to share our minds with each other at all. It’s a tool to keep sharp and true, not dulled by incompetence or deliberate misuse. Without it, we each remain locked in the isolation of our skulls, alone.

So a little less abuse of our language and we might just have fewer problems…

By the way, teachers and grammarians serve to slow down the speed at which our language changes/evolves, even old, retired ones like me. Eventually, usually, we have to give up on some changes, though, and admit (when enough people are all making the same mistake in ignorance of our “correctness”) that linguistic evolution has happened and the changed use is now correct (more on this notion in another post sometime). But I think I’ll not surrender on fewer and less yet. Even though Dictionary.com has given up (or else “the idjits there don’t know no better”)—while number 6 is acceptable, dealing as it does in its example with a unitary quantity, check out definition number 7 for “less.”  I believe they’re wrong there.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

2 thoughts on “for Shark: less is more

  1. Ohhhhh…I love that article, as you knew I would. It reminds me of conversations with my Chinese friend that I have met living here in the St. Louis area. I find myself in the course of everyday conversation, having to explain what words mean to her. She is trying very hard, to learn the language and the correct words to use to express her thoughts. She is forever asking “Whats mean?”, which forces me to search for the best explanation I can for such words or phrase in question. Im not sure I am the right person to be doing this, but will continue to try my best. She is enrolled in an ESL classes, which she is excelling in. :o). Great article John!! Once again.

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