Less anxiety, fewer worries

I have almost, though not quite, resigned myself to the death of the distinction between less and fewer. I just saw a car ad that had a note at the bottom of the screen: “Less CO² emissions…” So, too, who vs. whom, and the use of “me” in the expression that now commonly reads, “just between you and I.” (The latter is a change due to hypercorrection .)

I am trying to comfort myself with the knowledge that this is how language evolves over time. I’m a descriptive linguist, after all, not a prescriptivist. And historical linguistics is my favorite thing—I’d have nothing to study in that regard if it weren’t for these changes! Some of today’s “errors” are tomorrow’s accepted variations, and some of those variations are the “correct” usage of the future. Did you know, for example, that the use of “don’t,” “won’t,” and other contractions was at one time considered to be crass and unlearned? That’s the nature of language change, and anyone who tries to fight it has lost the battle before she begins.

Another characteristic of the evolution of language is that often, when some sort of dual usage (like who/whom) contains an aspect of redundancy, one of the two forms wins out and takes the place of both. It’s happening with who/whom and less/fewer. Even though I could teach a lesson on the difference between who and whom, I have to admit that “whom” is starting to sound antiquated and just plain silly to me. Have you ever read a sentence where “who” or “whom” was misused, and as a result, you were unable to understand what the sentence meant? (Provided that you could even recognize such misuse.) “We didn’t know whom was coming” sounds goofy, but you’d know what the speaker meant if you heard it. Same with “The woman who I saw talking on the phone was tall”—not confusing at all. In both cases, who/m is misused, but the meaning is clear. That means the little “m” there is redundant. Grammatically, its function is to show whether the noun it is replacing is the subject or object of the clause. But the structure of the sentence and the conceptual context (what the sentence says) give you enough information that you really don’t need the two different pronouns to differentiate between a subject and an object.

I spent good brain cells learning the difference between who and whom, less and fewer. But alas. “More” serves for both count and noncount nouns with no confusion (more money, more jobs). I suspect we will survive with “less” (less money, fewer less jobs). Good thing, considering the economy.

p.s. And don’t even get me started on its/it’s. That’s just a stupid, problematic spelling convention. Read more here if you’re interested.

About Verla

Wordfreak. Linguist. WA State licensed P.I. #3377. Principal, Viera Investigations. Spanish-English interpreter. Sole proprietor, Encanto Language Services. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, PacNWer by choice. Jewelry artist, Different Drummer Designs. Owner, world’s most gigantic dachshund. Driver, world’s almost smallest car. Chocoholic. Lover of things purple.
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6 Responses to Less anxiety, fewer worries

  1. Michael says:

    Great entry. Love the “prescriptive” linguist vs “descriptive”. I used to have this same argument with Spanish teachers who would swear something in the textbook was accurate over and above usage in say Peru or en la frontera entre los EEUU y Mexico. I would advocate that you need to be aware of both, and probably use the “incorrect” items more in relationships and human interaction, regardless of what you need to know to be a copy editor or to write academic Spanish.

    • Verla says:

      Michael, this issue is ubiquitous in interpreting. Which is more important, communication or “correctness”? There are words that I just hate that I use anyway because that is what my clients use and understand. Examples: biles (facturas); provecho (libertad vigilada/bajo palabra–a dozen ways to say this in Spanish); maniórder (giro); diyuáy (manejo embriagado). These are just early stage variant adoptions from English. Some may take hold permanently in Spanish, others may not. The French are still fighting “le shampooing,” for godsake, so who knows.

      You’ve hit it on the head when you mention different classes of usage. The important thing is to know when to use what type of language. You don’t talk the same way at a job interview as you do when you’re partying with your friends. An email to your mom won’t require the same type of writing as submitting an essay as part of a scholarship application. Knowing the levels of slang, formality, and “correctness” to use for each type–and being able to vary among them–is what makes one a skilled communicator.

  2. Ben says:

    Usage indeed…

    While we’re at word distinction, is there a difference between “done” and “finished?” I was once told that one of the words corresponded with cooking and food items (though I don’t remember which) and the other applied to tasks other than food/cooking. Is this true?

  3. Verla says:

    Hi Ben–I think the key here is that while in general the two words are synonyms, there’s a special meaning of “done” in the food arena. When I say “done” to say a food is sufficiently cooked, “finished” doesn’t really mean the same thing. “The cookies are done; take them out of the oven” sounds right to my ear. “The cookies are finished; take them out of the oven” sounds off-key. However, I might say, “The cookies are finished. I just frosted the last one,” and that’s fine. It’s still in a food context, but it means something different than “done.” I can’t think of any other context outside of “sufficiently cooked” where the two aren’t interchangeable in the general sense of “completed.” There are specialized meanings like “to lacquer” in the finish-furniture sense or “it’s just not done” in the social-propriety sense, but you can rest assured that if the waiter approaches your table near the end of your meal to ask, “Are you done?”, he is not wondering if you are still pink in the middle.

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