Word of the day: less

The other day, just as I was slowly waking up and making my first cup of coffee, I heard a discussion on the radio about the whether or not you can say “less than one in five people”. It seemed that several listeners had said that this was wrong and were insisting that less should be replaced by fewer. For a change, the guest speaker, Oliver Kamm, proved to be very sensible in his views on the matter, namely that trying to describe this use of less as wrong is basically a bit stupid. He explained how less has been used with both uncountable (mass) and countable nouns for hundreds of years now, and how the ‘rules’ for the usage of less and fewer were the result of an “ill-informed pedant” publishing a book about it a very long time ago.

A pedant is someone who likes to split hairs; in other words, someone who finds differences where none really exist – and someone who is ill-informed has learned the wrong information.

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Unfortunately, many course materials and teachers of English still like to insist on rules such as this, maybe because they are “mistakes” that are easy to see and correct, whereas a lot of mistakes you might make as learners may be a mixture of wrong grammar and wrong words (or missing words that you do not know in English!), which are maybe harder to correct. Interestingly, though, dubious rules such as less and fewer are not tested these days in international exams such as IELTS or FCE, so really there is no reason to keep repeating them and demanding that anyone follows them. There are certainly other things that are far more important to spend time on, such as learning some of those missing words you don’t know!

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  • Are there any ‘rules’ in your language which fluent speakers often ‘break’?
  • Are there any rules in English that you have seen / heard ‘broken’ by native speakers?
  • Do you know anyone who often splits hairs?

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One Response

  1. Andrew says:

    I think the definition of pedant is somewhat wider than the one given in this article; a pedant is sometimes spot-on. I suspect it is the delivery of the pedantry in question – especially when tinged with smugness – that irritates non-pedants. Older (elder?) brothers like to lord it over younger and less-informed siblings, and back-stabbing office colleagues revel in oneupmanship as they climb the greasy pole of office politics.
    Pointing out that Johannesburg is not the capital of South Africa can be done a hundred different ways. A teacher would naturally mark it as a wrong answer in a geography test. A pub quiz team captain might win the competition. A wannabe Michael Caine impersonator would put on a cockney accent and say “Not a lot of people know that” and turn it into a joke.


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