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...