Arrant Pedantry

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How I Became a Descriptivist

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always the grammar free-love hippie that I am now. I actually used to be known as quite a grammar nazi. This was back in my early days as an editor (during my first year or two of college) when I was learning lots of rules about grammar and usage and style, but before I had gotten into my major classes in English language, which introduced me to a much more descriptivist approach.

It was a gradual progression, starting with my class in modern American usage. Our textbook was Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in editing or the English language in general. The class opened my eyes to the complexities of usage issues and made me realize that few issues are as black-and-white as most prescriptivists would have you believe. And this was in a class in the editing minor of all places.

My classes in the English language major did even more to change my opinions about prescriptivism and descriptivism. Classes in Old English and the history of the English language showed me that although the language has changed dramatically over the centuries, it has never fallen into a state of chaos and decay. There has been clear, beautiful, compelling writing in every stage of the language (well, as long as there have been literate Anglo-Saxons, anyway).

But I think the final straw was annoyance with a lot of my fellow editors. Almost none of them seemed interested in doing anything other than following the strictures laid out in style guides and usage manuals (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was somehow exempt from reference). And far too often, the changes they made did nothing to improve the clarity, readability, or accuracy of the text. Without any depth of knowledge about the issues, they were left without the ability to make informed judgements about what should be changed.

In fact, I would say that you can’t be a truly great editor unless you learn to approach things from a descriptivist perspective. And in the end, you’re still deciding how the text should be instead of simply talking about how it is, so you haven’t fully left prescriptivism behind. But it will be an informed prescriptivism, based on facts about current and historical usage, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the rhetoric coming from the more fundamentalist prescriptivists.

And best of all, you’ll find that the sky won’t fall and the language won’t rapidly devolve into caveman grunts just because you stopped correcting all the instances of figurative over to more than. Everybody wins.

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One Fewer Usage Error

In my mind, less and fewer illustrates quite well virtually all of the problems of prescriptivism: the codification of the opinion of some eighteenth-century writer, the disregard for well over a millennium of usage, the insistence on the utility in a superfluous distinction, and the oversimplification of the original rule leading to hypercorrection.

I found a very lovely example of hypercorrection the other day in The New York Times: “The figures are adjusted for one fewer selling day this September than a year ago.” Not even stuffy constructions like “10 items or fewer” make me cringe the way that made me cringe.

No usage or style guide that I know of recommends this usage. In my experience, most guides that enforce the less/fewer distinction grant exceptions when dealing with things like money, distance, or time or when following the word one. And why, exactly, is one an exception? I’m really not sure, but my best guess is that it sounds so strange that even the most strictly logical prescriptivists admit that less must be the correct choice.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an excellent entry on less/fewer, but surprisingly, regarding the “one fewer” issue it says only, “And of course [less] follows one.” Perhaps the use of “one fewer” is so rare that the editors didn’t think to say more about it. Obviously someone should’ve said something to the copy editor at The New York Times.

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