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.
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