Do not let other people’s ideas of correct English get in the way of great English

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I know the difference between less and fewer and I don’t want to.

Many people do. Triumphant comments are made about it.

The problem is that at no point is it useful. If I say I want less burglars in my house, nobody is confused about my intent. If I’d like to eat fewer cake, you aren’t going to be mistaken about my plan.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a stickler for precision. Woe betide people who innocently ask me “do you have the time?” and I react so badly to ‘you have two choices’ that I am regularly given no options at all. But both are examples where the language is precisely specifying a (wrong) meaning. Whereas, I see no reason to keep language features that, as the language is currently used, only serve to keep smug people smug and make other people feel bad.

I also accept that the rules of communication are defined by the listener not the speaker. So when I write for scientific journals I am ruthless with my countable nouns and distinguishing subclauses. When I run TooManyCooks much is made of adjective-stacking and verb-looping. But when I am listening to someone talk, or reading a news article I care about the meaning and I care about the joy of the writing.

Knowing the difference between less and fewer achieves nothing in terms of semantics. It achieves a lot in terms of rhyme and rhythm: switching between them is useful bit of mechanics for poets and songwriters, but correctness isn’t in question there.

There is a similar case with British and American spellings. Nobody is confused if you write about the ‘color of the jewellery’ (‘color’ is American, ‘jewellery’ is British), and indeed, the house style for this blog is that I freely use either.

English hasn’t got  a “correct”  because it’s defined by usage. It’s a massively imperfect language, but its great strength adaptability. So maybe when we correct each other on language we shouldn’t be thinking about correct we should be thinking about ‘better’.  A language feature is worth keeping if it makes the language easier to learn (for toddlers and people learning as a second language), if it makes the language more exact, if it reflects social change, if it makes the language more elegant, more beautiful.

Making ‘less’ wrong some of the time and ‘fewer’ wrong some of the time makes my language harder to learn and changes nothing else.

My language would probably have a beautiful name for the smell you get after rain if people hadn’t been spending time policing things that make people feel bad for no benefit.

My language is that of Shakespeare, Churchill, Cook, Austen, and Kipling. None of whom ever let other people’s ideas of correct English get in the way of great English.

One thought on “Do not let other people’s ideas of correct English get in the way of great English

  1. Hello, Joe! Really enjoyed my first read! I have some similar background and current life experience- working with children and adults with multiple types of challenges; all sorts of settings and throwing creativity anywhere it may fit!
    Your article about good/great English, really knocked me down. Rarely has a writer made such good sense and I hope, in some small way, be saying what I tell fellow writers ALL OF THE TIME…(Maybe a 2nd Cousin to, at least???)
    I see published Poets, for example, in my opinion, butcher any language by (I make up words, if I can’t find one I like) thesaurimpressing, embellishing and never figuring out how profound simplicity is, as initial gut feelings and thoughts to words, reflecting the writer’s experience, or story found.(Or, found him) This may be listened to AND FELT by most, rather than purchased by the educated elite, often out of pretention.
    Perhaps more to your point, is my run commonly used on sentence and don’t care, it is the way I make my point.
    As my late Father used to say, when he would flop a bag of Wonderbread upon a beautifully set, antique everything, dining table, “Hell, we know how to eat at the White House!” Now, that , to me is refined COOL!

    Mary Wood

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