January 12, 2009

"Yes, our announcement post title is grammatically incorrect."

Blogger tweets. That is Blogger, the blogging platform that I use, has a presence on Twitter now. I can't link to the tiny blog post — AKA tweet — that I've just quoted, but I can link to the announcement, which is titled: "Blogger in 140 characters or less."

The less/fewer distinction is popular with grammar sticklers — the anti-split-infinitivians — but I think more sophisticated grammarians would approve of that post title. It's colloquial and even preferable to say, for example, "Write an essay in 100 words or less." If you say "fewer," you seem like a non-native speaker who is consulting a rule before speaking. Any English speaker with even one ear knows to say "I have less than $100" and "We've got less than 20 minutes before the store closes."

The only reason why "Blogger in 140 characters or less" could be considered wrong is because in Twitter, when you're writing your post you see a countdown from 140, and you know that if you go into the negative numbers, your post won't publish. So there is as distinct particularity to the individual items in the whole mass.

Nevertheless, I say the original title was grammatically correct.

14 comments:

John Althouse Cohen said...

"Fewer 'less' complaints, please."

Also, even if it is an error, it's not a grammatical error. So they're in error about their error.

rhhardin said...

It's correct in any case, by way of a mathematical comparison. One says ``less than 140'' and ``less than 3.1415926536'' and ``less than pi'' whether it's interger, rational or transcendental. Otherwise, couldn't say ``less than X'' without knowing the properties of X.

In short, they're in a mathematical frame when they say it.

If something actually sounds wrong, then there's a grammatical analysis called for: why does it sound wrong? If it sounds right, then any rule to the contrary is wrong.

Joe M. said...

I've always thought of it as a question of number or degree. If it's a numbered collection in which the individual items are important, use "fewer." If it's a question of degree, use "less."

But I don't really know what the proper rule is. I would say that "10 items or less" is irritating enough to justify complaint. A strange distinction to have. I wonder how the English language wound up with 2 comparatives for pretty much the same concept? I'll see if I can find out and get back to you.

Also: I like the name "the anti-split-infinitivians" for grammar sticklers. But I would say that avoiding split infinitives and other kinds of splitting (esp. w/ prepositions) is a question of being clear (the goal of good writing) rather than a question of obeying rules for the sake of obeying rules: it is *much* clearer to say "the man to whom I am writing" than to say "the man who I am writing to." The rules exist for a reason (even if few--hah! few/fewer!--people abide by them these days).

Ron said...

"Blogger tweets" are what Tweety Bird (an obvious marketing tie-in!) give well behaved bloggers who don't piss off Tina Fey...

Paul Worthington said...

You can link to individual tweets. The link is found at the timestamp on each tweet. So here's the one for the quote: http://twitter.com/Blogger/status/1107948364

mdulakthomson said...

Joe M. has it right, I think. "Less" is for divisible amounts, "fewer" for things you count one by one.

Ann, the reason no native speaker says "fewer than 20 minutes" or "fewer than $100" is because minutes and dollars can be fractional. "Less cash" is right, like "less prestige" or "less water"; "less dimes" and "less Oscars" and "less bottles of Evian" are, to my eye, "off."

I don't think rhhardin's argument quite works. If you're thinking of numbers on a real-number continuum, sure: 3 is "less than pi." But the mathematical counterpart to "less than" is "greater than," and no one in his senses uses "greater than" in the sense that you want to use "less than."

You say "more than three people constitute a quorum," not "greater than three people constitute a quorum"; in the same way, you'd say that there's no quorum if there are "fewer than four people," not "less than four people." But if you wanted to say the same things with "greater than" or "less than," it'd be "there's a quorum when the number of people present is greater than three," or "there's no quorum if the number of people present is less than four."

Maybe rhhardin can help me out, though. I've wondered for a long time why people use "woman" adjectivally when describing female practitioners of various professions -- "woman doctor," woman conductor," "woman firefighter," &c. -- when no one uses "man" in the same way. (It is always "male nurse," rather than "man nurse," for example.) What is it in the sound of "female [X]" that makes it "wrong" for many, if not most, writers? Because I can't honestly see anything other than "sound" that would make "female" wrong in a place where "male" would be right.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I've wondered for a long time why people use "woman" adjectivally when describing female practitioners of various professions -- "woman doctor," woman conductor," "woman firefighter," &c. -- when no one uses "man" in the same way. (It is always "male nurse," rather than "man nurse," for example.) What is it in the sound of "female [X]" that makes it "wrong" for many, if not most, writers? Because I can't honestly see anything other than "sound" that would make "female" wrong in a place where "male" would be right.

Here's a Metafilter discussion on this question.

mdulakthomson said...

JAC,

Thanks for the Metafilter link! Obviously I'm not the only one asking this question.

I can't say I'm persuaded that there's something condescendingly clinical about "female," as though women were "less women than mammals" (as someone in the thread puts it). If that were so, wouldn't "womanist" -- or the rival "womynist" -- long since have supplanted "feminist"? And, sure, the adjectival "woman" generally comes attached to overwhelmingly male lines of work, where you'd assume absent other information that the person was male. But that doesn't explain why I still see (e.g.) "woman conductor" and "male conductor" side-by-side in the same short piece. Nor, of course, why "male" (not "man") is the default adjective when a man is a secretary or a nurse or an elementary-school teacher.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I should have added: I agree that it's a ridiculous inconsistency. "Female" and "male" are the appropriate adjectives. These are the most neutral, straightforward possible adjectives -- I don't see how they could be considered offensive or inappropriate. So what if the adjectives apply to animals? They also apply to people, because people are animals.

blake said...

Grammar loses to usage every time.

RR Ryan said...

If I understand your son corrcetly, he's correct. There is no such thing as gramatically correct; a thing is either gramatical or it isn't. By the way, that's a great picture of him. Is he the gay one? Just in case my boyfriend gets hit by a bus.

RR Ryan said...

If I understand your son corrcetly, he's correct. There is no such thing as gramatically correct; a thing is either gramatical or it isn't. By the way, that's a great picture of him. Is he the gay one? Just in case my boyfriend gets hit by a bus.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I just meant it's an error in word meaning (if anything). Grammar has nothing to do with it.

zee(: said...

Hi, i would like to be your friend. (: can you teach me how to improve my CRAP english? oh, i know sometimes people make crazy with THE BROKEN ENGLISH. =D so help me to improve my english, GOSH. I START TO STUTTER. sorry (: