Arrant Pedantry


Less and Fewer

I know this topic has been addressed in detail elsewhere (see goofy’s post here, for example), but a friend recently asked me about it, so I thought I’d take a crack at it. It’s fairly straightforward: there are the complex, implicit rules that people have been following for over a thousand years, and then there are the simple, explicit, artificial rules that some people have been trying to inflict on everyone else for the last couple of centuries.

The explicit rule is this: use fewer for count nouns (things that can be numbered), and use less for mass nouns (things that are typically measured). So you’d say fewer eggs but less milk, fewer books but less information. Units of time, money, distance, and so on are usually treated as mass nouns (so you’d say less than ten years old, not fewer than ten years old. One handy (but overly simplistic) way to tell mass nouns and count nouns apart (save for the exception I just noted) is this: if you can make it plural and use a numeral in front of it (five eggs), then it’s a count noun and it takes fewer.

The only problem with this rule is that it was invented by Robert Baker in 1770, and it contradicts historical and present-day usage. In actual practice, fewer has always been restricted to count nouns, but less is often used with count nouns, too, especially in certain constructions like twenty-five words or less, no less than one hundred people, and one less problem to worry about. It used to be that people used less when it sounded natural and nobody worried about it, but then some guy in the eighteenth century got the bright idea that we should always use one word for count nouns and one word for mass nouns, and people have been freaking out about it ever since.

Baker’s rule is appealing because it’s simple and (in my opinion) because it allows people to judge others who don’t know grammar. It makes a certain kind of sense to use one word for one thing and another word for another thing, but the fact is that language is seldom so neat and tidy. Real language is full of complexities and exceptions to rules, and the amazing thing is that we learn all of these rules naturally just by listening to and talking with other people. Breaking Baker’s rule is not a sign of lazy thinking or sloppy grammar or anything else negative—it’s just a sign that you’re a native speaker.

The fact that not everybody follows the simple, explicit rule, nearly 240 years after it was created, shows you just how hard it is to get people to change their linguistic habits. Is there any advantage to following the made-up rule? Probably not, aside from avoiding stigma from people who like to look down their noses at those who they deem to have poor grammar. So if you want to please the fussy grammarian types, be sure to use follow Baker’s made-up rule. If you don’t care about those types, use whatever comes naturally to you.



Recently I received an e-mail from my bank informing me that they had experienced some system outages. What struck me was that the e-mail kept referring to “impacted systems,” and it conjured up some strange mental images.

A lot of people hate the verb impact because they say that it should only be a noun or a participial adjective (impacted). The verb seems to be a fairly recent innovation, and it’s often stigmatized because it’s strongly associated with business-speak. (Though it’s worth pointing out that the verb contact is also a relatively recent business-speak derivation from a noun, and nobody gets up in arms about that one.)

I’m not a big fan of impact meaning “affect,” but as far as crimes against the language go, I think it’s pretty inconsequential. I think it waters down the original sense of “impinge upon” or “strike,” but such is the way language goes—words change, and there’s not a whole lot we can do to stop it.

But the participial adjective impacted is something different, at least in my mind. I don’t think it has really gained the “affected” sense that the verb impact has. It seems to me that impacted is only ever used to refer to two things: wisdom teeth and feces lodged in someone’s colon.

These are, to say the least, not exactly the associations one wants to evoke when referring to computer systems. Now, I just want to point out that this association in no way hindered my understanding of the e-mail from my bank; I knew exactly what they meant and did not have to spend any extra time figuring it out. I did, however, do a mental double-take when I read it, and that’s presumably not the reaction they were hoping for.

This is the point where a die-hard prescriptivist would rail against the abomination that is impacted meaning “affected,” but I’m not going to do that. My only point is this: feel free to use whatever words you think are best, but be aware of how they will impact your readers.


New and Improved Shirts

Just a quick update to say that I’ve redone the design for my Better Living Through Syntax shirts. Now it actually looks like a proper X-bar structure instead of a hastily drawn tree-thingy. Check it out!

Keep in mind that the shirt colors there are just examples—you can choose your own. And, as always, if you have any feedback or requests, feel free to let me know.

Also, I promise that I’m working on a real, substantive post. It should be done any day now . . .


The Newest Fangled Backformation

The other day at work I came across a fantastic formation I’d never seen before: “newest fangled.” It was from a speech given back in 1938 by J. Reuben Clark at Brigham Young University, where the law school is named for him.

The speech was pretty formal and serious, so I’m not sure if I want to assume that it was a jocular or ironic usage. However, a Google search for “newest fangled” returns a mere 363 hits, and citations in the OED for fangle or fangled are pretty rare and don’t appear much after 1700, so it doesn’t appear that this is an example of dialectal usage. Idiolectal, perhaps, but it’s hard to say since I’ve only got one example and I’m not familiar with Clark’s other works.

At any rate, I got a kick out of it, and I thought I’d share.



This is a subject I’ve wanted to write about for quite some time, but the recent movie WALL-E has reminded me of the issue once again, and that is this: some people seem to think that logos are the ultimate guide to the orthography of some names.

Now, Bill Walsh has already covered this topic on his site, the Slot, but it’s worth covering again. I’ve seen a couple different websites that pointed out that WALL-E is either spelled with or “promoted with” an interpunct, and I got involved in a forum discussion where people were wondering whether the dot should be rendered as a hyphen or an asterisk (once again, someone explained that it’s an interpunct).

Something about this strikes me as silly. Did I miss the memo when it was announced that graphic designers are the arbiters of proper orthography? And why is it that some people kowtow to certain logos and not others? After all, as Bill Walsh points out, nobody insists that the proper spelling of Macy’s is actually macy*s, so why do we worry about whether it’s WALL-E or WALL*E or WALL·E? (Then again, I see Wal*Mart plenty often. Perhaps there’s some research grant money to be had in studying the sociolinguistics of brand name orthography.)

A while back, I thought this issue mostly cropped up with tech companies (particularly internet companies, like Yahoo and eBay), but then I started seeing the aforementioned Wal*Mart as well as car names like SATURN (remind me again what that stands for) and Mazda6 (now we have to match the italics too? What next, colors and fonts?) I don’t know if this is just an example of the recency illusion, but it does seem like a lot of people nowadays don’t really know how to properly represent brand names.

And anyway, getting back to WALL-E, how do we even know that that’s an interpunct? The Wikipedia article doesn’t cite a source for this fact, and it’s not easy to tell from the logo whether it’s an interpunct, a bullet point, or just a dot. When a novelty font uses a decorative punctuation mark, it might be impossible to say what character that mark is supposed to correspond to. It might not correspond to anything at all, as with the stars in Macy’s and Wal-Mart. As Walsh notes, the five-sided star used in those logos is not the same thing as an asterisk.

I really see no good reason to forsake good judgement and slavishly copy the styling of logos, especially since it’s not always possible to do so. After all, the purpose of a logo is to be eye-catching and recognizable, not to conform to the principles of good spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. I say let logos be logos and text be text. It’s the job of editors to use common sense and good judgement in helping text to conform to reasonable standards. It’s not our job to mindlessly reproduce what we see.


Numbers and Hyphens

Recently I got a letter from my phone company informing me that my area code will be switching to 10-digit dialing sometime next year. Several times the letter mentioned that we will have to start dialing “10-digits.” It was very consistent—every time the numeral 10 was followed by the noun “digits,” there was a hyphen between them.

Now, I’ve tried to mellow over the last few years and take a more descriptivist stance on a lot of things, but I’m still pretty prescriptivist when it comes to spelling and style. Hyphens have a few different purposes, one of which is to join compound modifiers, and that purpose was not being served here.

Unfortunately, this is one of those things that most people aren’t really taught in school anymore, and even a lot of editors struggle with hyphens. It seems that some people see hyphens between numerals and whatever words follow them and generalize this to mean that there should always be hyphens after numerals.

But this isn’t the case, because as I said before, hyphens serve a purpose. The stress patterns and intonation of “10 digit(s)” are different in “You have to dial 10 digits” and “You have to dial 10-digit numbers,” because one is a compound and the other is not. The hyphen helps indicate this in writing, and if there’s a hyphen when there doesn’t need to be one, the reader may be primed to expect another word, thinking that “10-digits” is a compound that modifies something, only to find that that’s the end of the phrase.

Of course, one may argue that in compounds like this, the noun is always singular (“10-digit dialing,” not “10-digits dialing”), thus preventing any ambiguity or misreading. While technically true, some readers—like me—may still experience a slight mental hiccup when they realize that it’s not a compound but simply a numeral modifying a noun.

The solution is to learn when hyphens are actually needed. Of course, not all style guides agree on all points, but any decent style guide will at least cover the basics. And if all else fails, trust your ear—if you’re saying it like a compound, use a hyphen. If you’re saying it like two separate words, don’t use one. And if you’re writing or editing anything for publication, you really should know this already.


New Store, New Products

First off, let me apologize for not writing anything in a while. I’ve been busy with preparations for grad school and a new baby and haven’t gotten around to working on any of the ideas I’ve got bouncing around. I promise I’ll work on something soon.

But for now, you’ll have to be satisfied with something else entirely: t-shirts. I’ve moved my store from Cafepress for various reasons and have expanded my product line a little bit. I’ve got some other designs completed or in the works, but apparently Spreadshirt only lets me have three vector graphic designs at a time until I sell at least 10 shirts.

Until then, if you have any requests for different types of shirts or different designs, like maybe this better living through phonetics one, just let me know and I’ll be glad to accommodate.


Rules Are Rules

Recently I was involved in an online discussion about the pronunciation of the word the before vowels. Someone wanted to know if it was pronounced /ði/ (“thee”) before vowels only in singing, or if it was a general rule of speech as well. His dad had said it was a rule, but he had never heard it before and wondered if maybe it was more of a convention than a rule. Throughout the conversation, several more people expressed similar opinions—they’d never heard this rule before and they doubted whether it was really a rule at all.

There are a few problems here. First of all, not everybody means exactly the same thing when they talk about rules. It’s like when laymen dismiss evolution because it’s “just a theory.” They forget that gravity is also just a theory. And when laymen talk about linguistic rules, they usually mean prescriptive rules. Prescriptive rules usually state that a particular thing should be done, which typically implies that it often isn’t done.

But when linguists talk about rules, they mean descriptive ones. Think of it this way: if you were going to teach a computer how to speak English fluently, what would it need to know? Well, one tiny little detail that it would need to know is that the word the is pronounced with a schwa (/ðə/) except when it is stressed or followed by a vowel. Nobody needs to be taught this rule, except for non-native speakers, because we all learn it by hearing it when we’re children. And thus it follows that it’s never taught in English class, so it throws some people for a bit of a loop when they heard it called a rule.

But even on the prescriptivist side of things, not all rules are created equal. There are a lot of rules that are generally covered in English classes, and they’re usually taught as simple black-and-white declarations: x is right and y is wrong. When people ask me questions about language, they usually seem to expect answers along these lines. Many issues of grammar and usage are complicated and have no clear right wrong answer. Same with style—open up two different style guides, and you’ll often find two (or more) ways to punctuate, hyphenate, and capitalize. A lot of times these things boil down to issues of formality, context, and personal taste.

Unfortunately, most of us hear language rules expressed as inviolable laws all the way through public school and probably into college. It’s hard to overcome a dozen years or more of education on a subject and start to learn that maybe things aren’t as simple as you’ve been told, that maybe those trusted authorities and gatekeepers of the language, the English teachers, were not always well-informed. But as writing becomes more and more important in modern life, it likewise becomes more important to teach people meaningful, well-founded rules that aren’t two centuries old. It’s time for English class to get educated.


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.


Source Checking

In my current job making day planners, I get to read a lot of quotes. I don’t know who decided that day planners needed cheesy motivational and inspirational quotes in the first place, but that’s just the way it’s done.

One of my tasks is to compile databases of quotes and to make sure everything is accurate. The first part is easy. We’ve got a couple dozen books of quotations in the office, and if for some reason we want a little variety, there are countless sites on the internet that compile all kinds of motivational quotes.

Unfortunately, virtually all of our sources are unreliable. All but a few websites are completely untrustworthy; there are no standards, no editing, and no source citations. Most people seem to think that a vague description of who the person is (“actor,” “business executive,” and so forth) should suffice.

But surely edited and published books would be reliable, right? Not usually. Only one or two of the books in our office have real source citations so that we could track down the original if we wanted. Most just name an author, and sometimes they even screw that up—I’ve seen a quote by Will Durant attributed to Aristotle (it was in a book in which he discussed certain of Aristotle’s ideas) and another quote attributed to Marlene vos Savant. (For those of you who don’t know, it should be Marilyn vos Savant.) I can’t even figure out how an editorial error like that happens. Then there’s a quote from Jonathan Westover that pops up from time to time.

You begin to realize pretty quickly just how low the standards are for this genre of publishing. Most people don’t care about the accuracy of their inspiration—it’s the warm fuzzy feeling that matters. So things like research and thorough copy editing go out the window. It’s probably largely a waste of my time too. I doubt any of our customers would’ve spotted the errors above, but I feel like a fraud if I don’t try to catch as many of them as possible.

I’m beginning to realize that there are probably dozens of apocryphal, misattributed, or otherwise problematic quotes that I’m missing, though, simply because I don’t have the resources to track everything down. Googling for quotes seldom turns up anything of real use. And anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of our books are sourced entirely from the internet or from other unsourced collections of quotations. It might be an interesting study in stemmatics if it weren’t such an inane subject. Though sometimes I wonder if there are real origins for these incorrect quotes or if it’s just bad sources all the way down.

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