I found myself yelling at the TV on Labour Day after my Eskimos failed to complete an otherwise miraculous comeback against our archrival Stamps. My ire wasn’t raised by a blown call by the refs, or dropped pass that should have been caught. No, what got me was TSN announcer Chris Cuthbert telling the audience something along the lines of that Edmonton had lost its last four games by “three points or less”.
I’m sure I was in the minority of people who cringed at hearing the stellar announcer use “less” when he should have used “fewer”, but that knowledge didn’t make me any less angry. (It should be noted that Cuthbert did use fewer correctly during the Friday rematch.)
For those who have forgotten their elementary school English lessons, fewer is used when you can actually count something, where as less is used when you can’t: i.e. I would like to see fewer mistakes of this nature in the future (as mistakes can be counted) as I am growing less tolerant of them (as tolerance can’t).
Now, despite my job as a newspaper editor, I am not the sort of guy who goes around correcting the grammar and usage of friends and strangers alike (that’s why I continue to have both friends and all my teeth). I also don’t get too fussed by the grammatical horror show that is the Internet, largely because most of what’s posted online is just dashed off and is little more than written conversation. (If you’ve ever had the pleasure of transcribing a conversation you’ll know that people, even well educated people, don’t speak as grammatically correctly as you’d expect.)
I get that the meaning of words evolves over time, and I’m fine with that. Language is a living thing and if we try to freeze it in amber it’ll become as dead as the prehistoric bugs used to spawn the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. I remember my grandfather once showing me a photo of himself as a boy. In the image he had a smirk on his face and glint in his eye. I smiled and I said that it looks like that boy has a bit of mischief in him. Upon hearing this, my grandfather was horrified, saying that he never got up to anything like that. For me, mischief meant a little good-natured, mostly harmless fun, where as to him it meant criminality. In a way, both our reactions made sense as we both interpreted the word as we had learned it. (That said, I’m literally upset by the fact that the word “literally” literally no longer means literally.)
However, when it comes to less vs. fewer it isn’t evolution, but rather carelessness or ignorance. There is nothing wrong with not knowing something, the folly comes in not wishing to know or use the right word.
I understand that in lecturing you good readers about the difference between less and fewer I might come off a little smug, which is not my intent, but it does explains why you’ll never see me in the 10 items or less lane at the store.
— Gordon Cameron is Group Managing Editor of Hamilton Community News.