Friday, September 12, 2008

Less is not fewer


Paternity suit - is it just me or are these fashionistas related?


I’ve become so frazzled and confused trying to work out how to assimilate into Australia – believe me, many ponder this - that I’ve resorted to seeking solace in the oddest distractions, as opposed to engaging in more practical activity like speculating on viable ‘rest-of-life’ scenarios. This pursuit has ‘too-hard-basket’ smeared all over it in a particularly garish and age-inappropriate shade of lipstick. I’ll give you an example: I’ve wasted many minutes fantasising over the resemblance between the once reviled and now nationally treasured, (á la Mistress Thatcher), former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser; musical giant of Brisbane and its environs Robert Forster and tedious tennis titan Roger Federer. I don’t mean to disparage any of them except Monster Fraser who is still the devil’s chauffeur in the book of Pants and especially not Robert Forster who is an old friend, (although possibly not now). Roger Federer I have no history with but you have to admit that they all have a certain je ne sais quiff.

It’s as if my raison d’être has baked itself into a stale old pain au raison of late, with an emphasis on the pain rather than the raison. Watching that little Fairy Wren relentlessly propelling itself against a window for hours over the last week has been surprisingly life-affirming. The tiny creature seemed to me to be demonstrating empathy in the most touching way. In fact, I’d even go as far as to speculate that it was pecking out ‘I feel your pain’ in its quaint Fairy Wren version of Morse Code. Perhaps it just coveted my croissant. Either way, respect to you little dude and to your mother, Nature.

When I lived in Britain I despised Tesco because it built a vast store with nothing worth buying in it very close to my home. The proposed provision of a fish monger and delicatessen was welcomed by both planners and residents because Hackney Central didn't have either. Within a year or two of opening, the fish and deli counters were replaced by a pharmacy and bakery. Hackney already had an abundance of both. I was not happy. I stopped going there, along with a few other like-minded locals. Tesco sent me loyalty points long after I became a traitor. I used them to buy alcohol – in France.

I’m now chuffed to see that colossus of commerce capitulate to public pressure and correct a long-standing grammatical error in its signage. Lovers of the richness and exactitude of the English language will finally be best pleased. For years, like a grumpy old literate, I mumbled ‘fewer’ under my breath as I grudgingly assembled in a queue to purchase the ‘ten items or less’ I needed because I’d foolishly omitted them from my list of things to buy from a) France; b) Abel & Cole; c) Carol’s husband who drives a lorry. The successful outcome of the pressure on Tesco to rebrand its express lane, ‘up to ten items’ is attributed to The Plain English Campaign. Regular readers will know that I haven’t always been a fan of the PEC. It has a grand record of failing to distinguish baby from bathwater. However, in this particular battle of the bumf, the PEC has come up trumps, mutely trumpeting its victory over compulsory vernacularisation here.

In any sane person’s consideration, this is a vote for our language maintaining its richness of meaning. There are still enough of us around for whom this precision of expression has purpose. I don’t much mind what happens to the language after I’ve passed into Pants oblivion, but while I’m here, I’ll support the retention of its uniquely distinguishable words and phrases. Not so The Australian apparently which opines menacingly,

A GLOBAL war is raging over the word 'less' and how to label express checkout lanes in supermarkets.

This is a national newspaper of some note so the non-sequitur in the opening sentence, given that this is a piece about language usage, is baffling. What then to make of the journalistic imbroglio that follows?

The conflict began when British retail giant Tesco was forced to tear down the '10 items or less' signs on its quick lanes.

‘Conflict’? ‘Forced to tear down?’ This is Tesco n’est-ce pas? Surely you mean 'were reluctantly persuaded to offer a gratuitous gesture assuaging the sensibilities of the aging middle classes who comprise a significant proportion of its consumer base'. The only 'conflict' that could possibly have arisen is with the marketing gonks battling for ‘less’, one of retail’s key ‘added value’ words, to retain its high checkout profile.

Seemingly oblivious to even the most crude retailer/customer compact, The Australian sought to churn the storm in the teacup into a full-blown cuppa-wuppa,

Signs in the new stores are to say 'up to 10 items' after a brouhaha from purists who objected to the use of the word 'less' in that context. They contend the correct term is 'fewer'.

Contend? Sorry, the rules for the use of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are no more contentious than the rule that says a red light means stop and a green light means go. But still The Australian forges on combatively,

This has prompted a call from grammar guardians, the Plain English Campaign in Britain, for colonial retail outposts to clean up their acts.

Well, this is what the PEC actually did say,

Over the last few days there has been a lot of press coverage about Tesco's new checkout signs. Some of this coverage suggested that the retailer chose the wording of their new signs based on our recommendation. However, this is not the case.

Reflecting public opinion about the signs, we wrote to Tesco some months ago suggesting that they changed the wording of their 'Ten items or less' signs, as it is grammatically incorrect. We suggested that they alter it to 'Ten items or fewer' or 'Baskets only'. It became apparent that the company had received a lot of other correspondence on the matter.

No mention of compelling the colonies to conform then. The British solution is a good one. I’m pleasantly staggered that Tesco, of all companies, would defer to the public in this way. It means far more than is superficially apparent which is why The Australian seeking out an ‘expert’ to support its view that the originators of our language don’t know what the sod they’re on about is bonkers, but here they go again,

However, according to Macquarie University's emeritus professor of linguistics, Pamela Peters, it is the British who are wrong.

In any other circumstance I might agree but when it comes to the language they invented, I’d tread more cautiously, especially if I were like totally incorrect, dah,
Professor Peters said it was an example of people going overboard.

Did she indeed? I certainly hope no one drowned while waiting in line to pick up a two-for-one Evian offer.

Professor Peters, who is also the author of The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, said: 'It is one of those points of grammar British people feel more strongly than others.'

What I’d give for a red pen right about now. Still it's useful to know that if you want to see a Brit suffer, all you have to do is poke him with a point of grammar. Ouch! And then this,

Professor Peters said the word ‘fewer’ was a mark of older-style speech. ‘It's not used much in speech,’ she said. ‘So when people write it, they don't have a strong sense of its place in ordinary English idiom.’

It doesn’t take a marketing genius to work out that we wouldn’t even be discussing this if it weren’t for the fact that sloppy grammar usually compromises meaning and that’s what living, breathing language users don't want to happen. I agree that 'fewer' is an archaic-sounding word that we could conceivably live without and it will probably fall into disuse eventually. This should happen naturally and as a consequence of etymological evolution rather than be short-circuited to mollify the sensibilities of people whose job it is to sell us groceries. I further agree that there aren't that many opportunities for confusing the sense that its universal replacement with 'less' conveys. Obviously if one has 'fewer' sheep it's clear one has had a barbeque but if one possesses 'less' sheep it could mean the poor fellow hasn't been getting enough grazing time in but not many people would lose sleep over that one, provided there were enough sheep remaining to count in order to fall asleep.

Here’s how PEC spokesperson, the unfortunately named Marie Claire responded to a grilling from The Australian,

‘If you let language go off course, you have got nothing for the future. English is now the universal language and if you start making those rules too blurred, you are going to lose track of the whole thing.’

I’d love to be able to say I couldn’t have put it better myself but I do honestly believe I can. Language is a tool and, unless your toolbox has been possessed by Disney, you are in control. We use language to communicate with each other so it’s in every English user’s interest to ensure the language serves us as well as it can do by preserving the integrity and common understanding of its words and combinations of words. Spoken English is beautifully fluid and is being constantly enriched by its interaction with other languages but our formal civility is increasingly dependent on our shared understanding as communicated through written signage. This may seem like a silly little pedants' game but society is not well-served by long queues of grumpy people at check-outs stewing over word usage in my view. That really is hell in a handbasket. Their time would be much better spent pondering the big questions in life like whether Robert Forster could be Roger Federer’s dad. Look at the eyes and they have the same initials...











35 comments:

Andrew said...

Your so right Pant's. :-P

A similar campaign would fall on deaf ears in Australia.

It is interesting that Tescos did not use the word fewer, and so it was not a clear victory for PEC.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Andrew

You've got some kind of alert system haven't you? YOU KNOW when I've just published a post and you're always first in. Respect man!

The marketing people were never going to agree to 'fewer' and, actually I think it was a good decision. If the word is falling out of common usage, which seems very likely, it is better to stick to words that everyone understands. Britain is full of people for whom English is a secondary language. The issue was that the old signs were not grammatically correct - a must in common signage. The new wording solves the problem elegantly.

xxx

Pants

Reading the Signs said...

How many times have I stood in the Sainsbury's '10 items or less' queue and never noticed this! As my name is RTS, this hurts me. But should the fact of our getting it wrong stop us from giving Good Advice to the Colonies? Obviously not.

Salute the bird from me, Pants. The Signs are fabulous - however one reads them.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Signs

On the contrary - I think this is a clear case of right triumphing over might. I love to see the evil Tesco brought low by the general public.

xxx

Pants

That's So Pants said...

Hi Signs

On the contrary - I think this is a clear case of right triumphing over might. I love to see the evil Tesco brought low by the general public.

xxx

Pants

Wisewebwoman said...

What p**s me off, Pants, are the people who can't count up to ten at all and crash through the line with an over-the-top cart full of items while the cashier won't confront them and we all twist in our knickers in frustration behind them.
Fewer and lesser and not more thans mean nothing to these mathematically challenged moronic cretins.
XO
WWW

That's So Pants said...

Hi WWW

The broader question of supermarket etiquette is an interesting one I think. When I used to live in Spain, the convention was that if you had more groceries than the person behind you, you had to yield your place. One day when I was both short of time and patience and after the fourth person in a row had forced the issue with about three items fewer than I had, I finally cracked. I barked in my best second language Spanish, 'I'd actually like to get through this checkout sometime today if you don't mind', and stood my ground. We all have our limits I guess.

xxx

Pants

Brian Hughes said...

"The successful outcome of the pressure on Tesco to rebrand its express lane, ‘up to ten items’ is attributed to The Plain English Campaign."

Now, if we can only convince them to stop selling manky food we'll be away.

"If you let language go off course, you have got nothing for the future."

Correction, '...you have nothing for the future...'; the word 'got' in this instance (like the vast majority of badly used 'gots' being extraneous. My old english teacher will be spinning in her grave. It's a pity I can't see it.

Brian Hughes said...

Ahem...I knew that as soon as I'd posted that I'd notice a grammatical error in it. Ignore the missing bracket. It was a typo. (Hangs head and slinks off in shame.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Brian

Yes. You'd think custodians of the language would bother checking their own usage before uttering press pronouncements, now wouldn't you?

I know what you mean about climbing up onto one's high horse only to notice a gaping hole in one's jodphurs. The proverbial fall usually follows any boastful displays on my part too.

xxx

Pants

Andrew said...

My reader seems particularly attuned to your blog then Pants. It brings a new post by you in quickly.

While I don't do it you Pants, even though your writing is excellent, as it should be when you are professional writer, once someone starts to pick on someone for bad English, I read what the critical one writes with very focused eyes.

Writing is an area where people should be always encouraged. Perhaps gently corrected, but never criticised.

Btw Brian, ending a sentence with it?

Andrew said...

PS Pants, I have moved you from reader folder 'UK' to 'Local Chicks'.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Andrew

As I'm sure you know, I don't pick on the defenceless. I regard people whose job it is to know better as fair game. It's much more fun that way.

'Local Chicks?' Should that not read 'Vocal and Chic?'

xxx

Pants

phil said...

My blood pressure goes up several points each day as I pass the billboard that says "good guy's with 4wd's."

Actually, I think it say's it.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Phil

Yep - it doe's.

xxx

Pants

Brian Hughes said...

Andrew,

To the best of my knowledge (which isn't a great deal I must admit) there are no rules and/or regulations about ending a sentence with 'it'. 'In', perhaps, or 'on' or any other dangling preposition...but I've never heard of a rule about 'it'. Having said that, I break the rules all the time. Just so long as I look as though I know what I'm doing and can fool 80 odd per cent of the literate public (which is too difficult), that suits me fine.

Brian Hughes said...

Ahem...and again my proof reader needs a kick up the bum. That should have read 'which isn't too difficult'. Shakes head and slinks off in self-disgust.

R.H. said...

I tried reading all this but only got halfway. Sorry.

This will console you:

I only live for your love and your kizz
Iz paradize being near yoo like diz.
Becoz
Of yoo
My life is now wirdwhile
An' I can smile
Becoz
Of yooooo.

-ROBBBERT!

A poet is never embarrassed. Humiliated yes, but not embarrassed. Or he'd never start. Humiliation gets you fighting mad! My word yes. You get things thrown at you all the time. But stand firm!- be defiant! Because darlings, it will continue (especially in my case).

ROBBBERT!!!!!!

That's So Pants said...

Hello Brian

Just keep diggin' old chap.

Hi RH

And I am very fond of bananas.

xxx


Pants

R.H. said...

Wooh! Cryptic!

Wot duz dat meen?

That's So Pants said...

RH

Google was invented for moments like this.


xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

Tell me what it means, I can't find out.

R.H. said...

I'm not threatening to do it, but I can have you deported.

That's So Pants said...

Hi RH

You see how fearsome it is to be excluded from the communications loop? The defence rests - and not for the first time today.

xxx

Pants

Ms Baroque said...

LOL omg.

Ms P, you know I'm not a mad fan of the Plain English people, but this seems an excellent thing. And the way you told it, it was like you were telling it about the Tesco in Morning Lane, so it made me happy. About time someone saw that distinction.

I must just interjject, too: where the newspaper report says, "They contend the correct term is 'fewer' " - it should be "They contend that" etc. It's being used transitively! Same with ensure, allege, agree, etc. You and I both know this.

We also know, pace the whole discussion, that Les is in fact Moore.

R.H. said...

A poet is never in a loop. He is unstable, all over the place, like a mad woman's shit. A poet is never contained. Or identified.
Miss Baroque mentions transvestites, she 'must interject'. Right, and so must we all. But a poet never gets pedantic, never gets fancy; dress it up all you like, a transvestite is still a drag queen, and the Faerie Queen is not a manly poem!

ROBBBBERT!!!!!!!
Vasser.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Ms B

It was indeed Morning Lane. Funnily enough, I maintained a grudging loyalty to the Well Street Tesco 'Metro' - if only for toilet paper and Ecover products. It is the innocent foundation of the evil empire and I always felt that, having driven every food store except wonderful George's Health Food shop away from Well Street, its removal would leave many elderly and disabled people without any source of budget food. George has yummy things but they're not cheap. I always liked the staff there too. And how is Les? Haven't seen him in years.

Hi RH

You're right. I think Spenser was born in London. Tony Bonner was born in Manly although I don't think he wrote any poems about it.

xxx

Pants

James said...

Hmmm. Still not too sure how to navigate the world of responding to comments on blogs so thanks for the welcome. While you're on a tidying up the language tip, there's a misplaced apostrophe in the welcome centre at the Mornington Peninsula.

bruceandfran said...

See. I'm that useless at it, my name didn't even come up as bruce....

That's So Pants said...

Hello James

Welcome? Moi? Surely not. I wondered where misplaced apostrophres went. Now I know. Thank you.

Hi bruceandfran

Suggest Bruce'n'Fran. Apostrophes can be purchased from the Welcome Centre at Mornington Peninsula. I think you can also get them from Amazon.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

The way of the pear is not the way of a poet. A poet is flexible (spring bean), to dodge things thrown at him. Fat poets are in the wrong game.

A poet is a preacher, he will recite,
As dogs will howl,
And bite.
A poet is a creature, he will pear bite,
As cats will prowl
All night.*

ROBBBERT!!!

*The Fleas of Inspiration.

R.H. said...

(go easy on that one; it's not much, but it means well)

That's So Pants said...

My you are on a roll old chap. When's the book launch. Mine's a Sauvignon Blanc.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

You'll be on a roll yourself, after the sauvigon blanc.

That's So Pants said...

Yep, that's what usually happens.

xxx

Pants