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I have to admit that I am biased toward supermarkets.  I don’t drive, so it’s awfully convenient to have most all of the food products I regularly consume under a single roof. Furthermore, the variety in the average supermarket is a fascinating testament to the opulence of our modern society — the Ralphs nearest my apartment stocks no fewer than 15 types of canned pastas, including my dear ABCs and 123s, a meal that I find both educational and nostalgic.  Such benefits allow me to overlook the flaws in the supermarket system.

Others are less willing to cut supermarkets such slack. Oddly, though, instead of concerning themselves with real supermarket problems, like the preponderance of Whitney Houston songs on the PAs, they’re obsessed with the check-out line:

Alas, it’s not merely fictional superheroes who are interested in the name of the express lane, but real live people.  Both in defense of my friends the supermarkets and for the sake of my sanity, which wears ever thinner every time bad prescriptivism goes unchallenged, let me explain why “10 items or less” is acceptable.

Here’s the claim that agitated prescriptivists stake: less is restricted to uncountable items, and fewer is restricted to countable items. (Uncountable, or mass, items are those like milk, money, mortar; countable items are those like coins, cups, kitties.)  That is why an Ideal Boy says things like:

(1a) You need to drink less pop and more milk.
(1b) You need to eat fewer sweets and more brussels sprouts.

(Statements like these are the reason that an Ideal Boy has few friends.)  Now, what’s interesting about this is that swapping less for fewer is not too bad, while using fewer for less sounds quite terrible, at least to me:

(2a) *You need to drink fewer soda.
(2b) You need to eat less sweets.

My intuition is borne out on the Internet:

Google hits for less X fewer X
Y stuff 369,000 516
Y objects 17,200 27,100

So the idea that fewer is limited to countable items is pretty well borne out by usage.  However, we can see that less is less stringently affiliated with uncountables.  (Language Log has even more data on this.)  So is this a sign of that horror of horrors, the destruction of the English language by modern speakers who can’t be bothered to learn the rules of the grammar?

Unsurprisingly, no.  As it turns out, this whole notion that fewer is countable and less is uncountable has been traced back to 1770 by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.  And it wasn’t a rule back then, but rather a preference of a single author, Robert Baker.  (That’s not to say that no one agreed with him, only that no one else seems to have put it in print back then.)  So it’s not that modern ne’er-do-wells are ruining the language; at worst, they’re returning it to an earlier state.  The OED attests countable less in 1481, derived from an Old English usage attested by no less a personage than King Alfred.

All right.  So less used to be fine with countables.  Then a dude came along and said he wasn’t fond of that, and his opinion eventually got codified into a rule.  But, as MWDEU and the Google results point out, countable less remains common, despite the widespread acceptance of this rule outlawing it.  Now, to me, that suggests that the rule that less can’t be used with count nouns is spurious.

You’re welcome to disagree; you may be of the opinion that the fact that a large proportion of the populace believes this rule exists makes it exist.  (It’s like the principle of common usage, but in reverse.)  That’s a (sort of) reasonable stance, but I don’t think that accepting this rule rules out 10 items or less.

Countability is gradient.  Arnold Zwicky has written extensively on this issue on Language Log.  In different situations, the same noun can be countable or uncountable.  Anecdotally, I sometimes say “I got some email” (uncountable) while at other times I say “I got some emails” (countable).  But also, in some situations, it can be unclear whether a usage is countable or uncountable.  For example, let’s say you want to discuss the calamitous effect that the current economic downturn has had on your salary:

(3a) I’m making four thousand dollars less than last year.
(3b) ?I’m making four thousand dollars fewer than last year.

Dollars sure looks like countable here, modified as it is by a number and a plural suffix.  But I don’t think anyone’s going to argue (3b) is better than (3a) — unless they’ve drunk an awful lot of Robert Baker’s Kool-Aid.  Why’s that?  Probably because we’re not thinking of the individual dollars in the $4000, but rather as the money as a mass.  The MWDEU mentions that this same situation holds for a variety of seemingly countable nouns, such as distance, units of time, and statistics.  Now let’s return to the or less/fewer construction, for these sorts of nouns:

(4a) Having trimmed my caloric intake, I now eat seven pounds or less of avocados each day.
(4b) ?Having trimmed my caloric intake, I now eat seven pounds or fewer of avocados each day.

Again, I prefer the less sentence to the fewer sentence. That means that a seemingly countable noun can take or less if it can be thought of as a mass or as a single unit.  That’s why 10 items or less can be acceptable.  Clearly the objects being taken into the checkout can be thought of as a mass noun — namely, groceries.  You can say I bought some groceries, but you can’t say I bought a grocery, unless you mean you’ve bought a store.  Because groceries are commonly regarded as a mass, it’s not really weird to say “10 items or less”, and not much weirder than saying “10 pounds or less” or “10 gallons or less”.

Finally, it turns out that “X items or less” was actually quite commonplace before the grocery stores started using it.  For instance, in Google Books, there are 13 full-text hits for “items or less” before 1950.  (To be fair, some of them are repetitions of a legal phrase, but there’s still a few unique hits.)  Take a guess how many full-text hits there are for “items or fewer” before 1950.  Now, check your guess.  Pretty damning, eh?

Summary: The idea that less can’t be used with count nouns isn’t well supported; it’s a rule that hasn’t ever been strictly followed, especially for count nouns that can be perceived as masses.  Groceries lend themselves to perception as a mass, so it’s no surprise that “10 items or less” is favored now, just as it has been historically.  Please stop complaining about this.

No one ever tells me anything.  Today, apparently, is National Punctuation Day, which you would think someone would have noticed and informed me of, given that I consume commas like some sort of giant comma-consuming machine — or an eighteenth-century writer.  But no, it seems that my friends have “more important” things to discuss, like Wall Street bailouts or North Korea deciding to restart their nuclear program.  I had to find out about it through Google Trends.  The good news about finding out through Google Trends is that I noticed that the top hit for “national punctuation day” under blogs is none other than goofy over at bradshaw of the future — so all those people out there looking for advice about how to most condescendingly correct others’ punctuation will be given far better guidance than any prescriptivist would prescribe.

goofy posted a quote from Dennis Baron, and there’s one important part I’d like to comment on:

“[N]o one ever agrees what punctuation is for. Sometimes it indicates pauses, sometimes syntactic units.”

YES! It’s so true!  In elementary school, I was taught that the comma indicated that you were supposed to pause when reading aloud.  But this doesn’t always work; I often don’t pause on the comma in “According to my friend, there was a big explosion at the balloon factory.”  In that situation, it’s solely to mark the edges of a syntactic unit.  This is a problem for a lot of punctuation: ill-defined usages.  The lifespan of punctuation is much shorter than that of words, and punctuation is much more esoteric than other issues of grammar. You don’t pronounce punctuation, so it’s awfully hard to determine where it ought to go.  And more so than other aspects of writing, punctuation has the visual aesthetic to address; what other reason is there to choose between the hyphen, the en-dash, and the em-dash?  This makes it difficult for a usage consensus to emerge.

In my opinion, punctuation is similar to religion.  Everyone thinks they’ve got it right, an awful lot of people go about trying to convince you to agree with them on it, and in the end you have to make a personal choice about it.  Yes, there are some general rules about punctuation, and here’s a few I can come up with:

(1) Commas are weaker than dashes, which are in turn weaker than parentheses.
(2) Commas are weaker than semicolons, which are weaker than colons, which are weaker than periods.
(3) The British are weird and call periods “full stops”.

But in general, punctuation is a matter of taste, especially on the tough questions.  We saw that with the Oxford comma, and it’s true in most cases.  Punctuation, as Dennis Baron noted above, serves two purposes: to indicate syntactic structure, and to let your voice come through.  Because these two purposes are sometimes in conflict, it’s difficult to create punctuation rules.  But this is the beauty of punctuation.  Like word choice and syntax, punctation is a chance for the writer to infuse their style into their writing.

My advice for celebrating National Punctuation Day?  Read some poetry.  A good poet has to have an ear for punctuation, determining what sort of a pause is needed to maintain the meter, and what kind is necessary to make a convoluted sentence clear.  Alexander Pope is especially good at this.  His poems are also a lesson that all the punctuation in the world can’t make heroic couplets worthwhile.  (Or, if you’ll excuse my vanity in putting in a plug for some of my earlier work, you could read about the issues affecting apostrophe usage.)

I apologize for the intermittent posting the past month; what with the end of summer filling me with the spirit to jam in a bunch of relaxation and the end of summer filling me with a need to jam in a bunch of work that I didn’t do earlier, I’ve had precious little time to write about grammar.  But admittedly, it was also that my interest in the intricacies of grammar were flagging a bit.  I know that’s not something that many people would lament, this inability of grammar to raise one’s hackles.  In fact, for many prescriptivists, this is something I wish they’d encounter.  But for me, it was a bit worrisome — especially as I had recently been enjoying a resurgence of interest in syntactic research.

And then I was in a conversation with my mother in which she remarked on some people’s usage of a commas in a list.  Specifically, she didn’t understand why anyone would add a comma after the penultimate item in a list, as in (1); she found it to be greatly preferable to omit it, as in (2).

(1) What sort of fool, imbecile, or moron does the author take me for?
(2) Surely I can read, follow and understand the point without the extra comma!

At that, my grammatical hackles rose!  It was time to discuss the finer points of a negligible grammar point!  Hooray!  A long and boring conversation ensued about why my mother was biased against the comma (she blamed her strict schooling), why I was biased toward the comma (I blamed my raging Anglophilia in my formative years), and why she was bothered so by the presence or absence of such a minor mark (her schooling coupled with her natural proclivity to favor order in the universe).  But the big question our conversation raised — and failed to answer — was this: why is this comma an issue at all?  No one argues that the other commas in a list ought to get the heave-ho, but people are pretty evenly divided over the Oxford comma.  So what’s its deal?

First, a bit of background. The Oxford comma is so called because it is standard in the style guide for the Oxford University Press, and has been for over a hundred years. The Oxford comma is attested in the 1905 edition of the OUP Style Guide, and remains there to this day.  The comma also goes by a few other names. Those of a less Anglophilic bent can call it the Harvard comma — although as a loyal Princetonian I would never sully my reputation by doing so. Those who seek to remain neutral in such Anglo-American affairs can call it the serial comma. And those who don’t much care about minor punctuation issues refer to it as “that extra comma” or “that stupid extra comma”, depending on whether or not they use it.

But whatever you call the comma, is it right or wrong? There’re fair arguments on both sides.  One might be concerned about limiting ambiguity. Alas, including the Oxford comma can lead to ambiguity, but omitting it can lead to ambiguity as well.  Consider (3) and (4):

(3a) I own pictures of my friends, Hugh Grant, and Dolly Parton.
(3b) I own pictures of my friends, Hugh Grant and Dolly Parton.

(4a) I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat, and Michael Cera.
(4b) I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera.

It is clear, thanks to the Oxford comma in (3a) that I am not friends with Hugh Grant or Dolly Parton. In (3b), though, they could potentially be my friends, listed as an appositive phrase, and the sentence is thus somewhat ambiguous. Deus ex Oxford comma! On the other hand, in (4a), if you don’t know who Alia Shawkat is, then you may reasonably conclude that the commas are intended to indicate an appositive and that Alia Shawkat is my Congresswoman. (4b) is clearer; since Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera can’t both be my Congresswoman, it’s clear that I was constructing a three-item list. Diabolus ex Oxford comma!  In the first case, the Oxford comma dispels ambiguity, but in the second it induces ambiguity.  So ambiguity doesn’t push us one way or the other.

Okay, so is the comma right or wrong? Well, it depends on who you’re trying to please.  Wikipedia offers a nice list of which style guides say the comma ought to be used and which say it ought not to, and there’re some heavy hitters on both sides.  Historical usage is also divided: An Exact Diary of the Late Expedition of His Illustrious Highness the Prince of Orange, (now King of Great Britain) from His Palace at the Hague, to His Arrival at White-Hall (1689) uses the comma, but The History of the Rebellions in England, Scotland and Ireland (1691) rebels against it. Others are more irresolute about the comma, occasionally using it, occasionally spurning it; Dud Dudley’s Mettallum Martis (orig. 1665, reprinted 1854) is one such example. This 17th-century indecision continues to the present day.

Once more you may ask, perhaps somewhat pleadingly this time, “So is the comma right or wrong?”  Or perhaps you have already realized the truth: like so many other grammatical concerns, this one is a nothing, a trifle, a batrachomyomachy.  It doesn’t matter which one you use, really.  It never has.  Follow your heart and let others follow theirs.  Mine led me to the comma while my mother’s turned her from it, and yet we still can attend a garage sale without fisticuffs. At least until we both see something we want.

Summary: The Oxford or serial comma has been in use for centuries, but omitting it has always been fine as well.  To this day the debate rages, but the fact of the matter is that both are common, and neither is without its flaws.  Go with what you like, and feel free to switch around if you need or want to.

Part of growing up, I have been told, is learning your limitations.  I’ll buy into this. As a younger lad I was pretty well convinced that I could do anything, this being the credo that American children are indoctrinated with from birth.  Quickly, though, it became clear that this was not entirely true.  Early in elementary school, I learned that I was not able to play basketball, then learned as a result that I was not able to fit in.  But the beauty of learning about your limitations is that you can turn them to your advantage.  Whereas my more sport-adept classmates had to balance their other interests with the demands of popularity, my inability to do a lay-up meant that I had all the time in the world to pursue my other interests, like obsessively reading and re-reading atlases.

Learning that I was no Manute Bol is the reason that now I can answer 80% of the questions in the geography category in Genus I of Trivial Pursuit.  So that’s a fair trade.

In recent years I’ve come to grips with some other exciting limitations: I can’t stomach cilantro; I can’t speak tonal languages; I can’t stand pop music.  No matter how many of these limitations I find, it seems like every day brings a new one.  Yesterday’s was that I will never be a native user of shall.

This is not to say I never use shall; I do intermittently, and I have a fairly clear idea in my head of a few instances when one ought to use shall:

(1) We shall overcome.
(2) Shall we dance?
(3) You Shall Know Our Velocity!

Okay, that’s about it.  In my mind, shall has these three usages in American English.  The first, exhibited in (1), is a mix of will and ought to.  It’s a way of stating that a future event is inevitable and well-deserved.  The second meaning, as in (2), is a mix of should and will; here the question is both an inquiry as to whether it would be good to dance and as to whether we will actually do so.  (3) is a sort of poetic form of will; to me, will seems less good than shall here, but I can’t specify exactly why.  So it seems to me that in American English shall is a future form, like will, but with some added information that the action under discussion is destined to occur, deserves to occur, or is in some way poetic.

These three examples certainly don’t form a clear definition of shall, but they do form a fairly coherent outline of the word in American English.  I’d figured that this was a starting point from which I could eventually hammer out the far more complicated British shall.  Sure, I’d seen Fowler’s warning about learning shall‘s usage:

“It is unfortunate that the idiomatic use, while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it; and for them the section is in danger of being useless.”

Yet, buoyed by that “you can do anything” idea, I brazenly assumed I’d best the British shall. So I occasionally read about its usage, growing dismayed at the fact that I couldn’t understand the joke about the non-English speaker of English (variously portrayed as French, Scottish, or Irish) who was drowning and cried out “I will drown; no one shall save me!” and thus had his cries for help mistaken as a statement of suicide because he’d swapped will and shall.  (If anything, this further motivated me to learn shall, in case I ever found myself sinking into the Thames.)

But then, yesterday, in the course of other research, I came upon a book from 1900 that attempts to clarify the shall/will distinction by means of a diagram:

It was at this point that I decided to follow Fowler’s advice and leave shall to the English. Inspirational stories be damned, I’ve got better things to do with my life than muddle through this.

But luckily, I have it on good authority from native British English speakers that they’ve never known an American to use shall in the proper English way. So even if I had the tenacity to get a solid grasp of English shall, it would be of no use in American English. (I shall be misunderstood, no one will follow me?)  So, if you are a speaker of American English, your best bet is just to get a grasp on American shall and use that.

The good news, at least in American English, is that will usually works in place of shall.  If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure which to use, you can always err or the side of caution and choose will. Rarely will will lead you astray.

Summary: Unless you are already familiar with shall, you’ll save yourself a lot of bother by not even trying to learn to use it in the precise English way. You’re welcome to my rules of thumb: shall is a future form that expresses a certain destiny to the act; if you can’t decide between will and shall, go with will.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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