Saturday, April 16, 2011

For those who think they know English

English is an easy language to learn, right? Well, I don't really think so.

If you are not already confused, here are a few links that can confuse you enormously. They are about English grammar and usage. Read them, and you will learn that you don't know the language at all.

1. - Very good to read. Read today's entry below just for the taste of it.


More and more, fewer people use “less” and “fewer” the way the language gods intended. “There are less people here than there were last year,” for example, is commonly heard or written.

Grammar texts are pretty absolute: Use “fewer” when you’re talking about countable things, and “less” when you’re not. So that first example should be “fewer” people, because you can count them. Simple.

OK, then what about this? “The contract pays him fewer than a thousand dollars a week.” Doesn’t that sound funny? But it must be right: You can count those dollars.

Thus the first “exception” to the “rules”: Use “less” when the context refers to a quantity, rather than individual things, even if there are a number of things. Thus, “he earns less than a thousand dollars a week,” but “he earns five hundred fewer dollars than his wife.”

That “exception” is usually easy to follow: Use “less” with singular nouns and “fewer” with plural nouns. (You need “less” salt on your fries, but “fewer” grains of salt.) If you’re comparing quantities of individual things, “fewer” usually works better than “less.” (You earn “less” money but “fewer” dollars than someone else.)

Even so, there are times when you can’t tell if you’re dealing with individuals or groups. In 2008, The New Yorker ran this cartoon of a checkout lane with the sign “10 items or less“ corrected to “10 items or fewer.” After all, you can count each of those items, yes? Except that almost no one says “ten items or fewer.” Maybe it’s one grocery order, so the individual items don’t count? Hey! You have eleven items! Put one of them back, so you have one item fewer.

Except that you should say “one item less.”

Other “exceptions” include distances (“less” than ten miles away), percentages and fractions (“less” than two-thirds of the voters), time (“less” than sixty seconds), measurement (“less” than thirty square yards), etc., etc., etc. (And, by the way, you shouldn’t use “fewer number,” as in “a fewer number of people.” When you say “fewer,” you’re already signaling that you’re talking numbers.)

Lesser mortals have failed to keep those exceptions straight. And Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that the “rule” actually started out as a “guideline,” where common sense, ear and elegance trump “right” and “wrong.”

Perhaps you can think of it as Garner’s Modern American Usage describes it: “Fewer emphasizes number, and less emphasizes degree or quantity.”

Yes, it requires you to think, but there are less fruitful ways to waste a day.

Now, stop and think: which one do you use, "less" or "fewer"?

2. - Another confusing site, well, I mean it's good, informative, but it doesn't help you in becoming a better English user. Just read the following piece and you will know why.


At various points in my life, I finished up a task and excitedly, dutifully, or resignedly announced its completion by saying “I’m done”. And most of the times, this was met with a congratulation, or at least warm indifference. On rare occasions, it was met with a succinct rebuke:

“Cakes are done. People are finished.”

That was all; no explanation given, and me left sitting there wondering why, if the subject of cake was going to be broached, it wasn’t to give me one as a reward. Because the response was so untethered to rational explanation, I would quickly forget about it, only to be reminded each time that I bothered to tell this person that I was done.

Well, I’m done. And so’s the rule. Let me turn the floor over to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU):

“Done in the sense of ‘finished’ has been subject to a certain amount of criticism over the years for reasons that are not readily apparent.”

The reasons aren’t unreadily apparent, either; they simply aren’t. MWDEU traces the prohibition against humans being done to MacCracken and Sandison’s 1917 book Manual of Good English, which offers no explanation for its impropriety. In the near-century since, no one else has found a reason for it either. What passes for a justification is that one-liner I quoted above; for instance, in one professor’s list of “errors to avoid“, we’re given this explanation, posted in its entirety:

“30. If something has been completed, it is finished–it is not ‘done’. Remember, cakes are done; people are finished.”

It looks to me that the real reason why people started complaining about this usage is that it had two signs of the prescriptivist devil: it was a new usage, and it was a non-standard usage. To be done, the MWDEU reports, supplanted to have done for states of being starting sometime in the 1700s or earlier, which on a prescriptivist timescale somehow counts as “new”. Furthermore, the OED classifies this usage as chiefly Irish, Scottish, American, and dialectical, which to a prescriptivist is just a long way of saying improper. And usually finished sounds fancier than done, which no doubt contributed to the distaste for done.

But unless you believe in 300-year-old grudges, there’s no reason to be against people being done. According to the OED, Thomas Jefferson used it, as did Jeremy Bentham (the philospoher, not the Lost character) and others. There’s no grammatical logic why done and finished are any different, either. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if it weren’t for its snappy motto, this injunction would long ago gone the way of the dodo. Let’s try to help it toward that fate.

Summary: Cakes are done; people are finished? Nope. Cakes can also be finished and people can also be done. And stop mentioning cake if you’re only teasing me.

3. - Very good site, with explanations on confusing things in English grammar.

The only problem: The more you read, the less you know English! Because you will find that there are so many exceptions to any rule in English grammar.

Sorry! But that's why English is interesting, isn't it?

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