Archive for the ‘linguistics’ category

Less is more. Or is it fewer is more?

September 26, 2008

OK, here’s a quiz.  You’re in the grocery store.  You have a small number of items in your cart–maybe a dozen plus about six yogurts.  You’re on your way home from work and very tired and hungry, and the lines are all long.  You spy the express lane.  You make a dash for it even though you’re over the limit.  What does it say? 

Odds are it says “Ten items or less.”   Or 12 or some other small number.  But the great crime here is not that you are sneaking too many groceries on the belt in the interest of avoiding the temptation of those fruit flavored Mentos or the trashy magazines in the impulse aisle.  It’s the grammar on the checkout line itself.

Here’s the thing.  Countable nouns take the word “fewer.”  Uncountable nouns take “less.”  So, if you can count the number of groceries (note: not if you’re too lazy to count them, but if it’s theoretically possible for them to be counted), the rule is: 10 items or fewer.  Not 10 items or less.  If we’re talking about feelings or other abstractions, we use less.  For example, “I love you less than I love this cookie-dough ice cream I have in my cart.”  We can’t apply numerical values to our feelings.

Earlier in this post I mentioned having a “small number of items in your cart.” Note that I said “number,”  not “amount.”  Again, countable nouns need to be referred to as a “number” (you have a number of ideas for improving grocery store checkout efficiency) while uncountable nouns need to be referred to as amounts (I have a large amount of impatience when I am in the grocery store).

Now, I realize that this may seem nit-picky.  All my topics are, really.  But as a grammar nag, I think the checkout line grammar sin is so egregious that it justifies going through it with 15 or even 20 items.  After all, they seem to think that your items are uncountable–so why count them?

i before e except after c and never instead of me

September 6, 2008

This is really a post about two different topics.  The first, the old “i before e” rule, has always been the bane of my existence. I think I was in college before I could spell “friend.”  Naturally, I married someone whose last name has an “ie” in it.

I learned from a Polish acquaintance that in Polish, “ie” takes the long “e” sound (as in geese) and “ei” takes the long “i” sound (as in eye).  That has gone a long way to helping me pronounce names that seem Germanic, like my husband’s.  It might explain fiend, but not friend.  

Basically, you just have to memorize the words.  The ole “i before e” rule is pretty much defined by its exceptions, which are many.  As I wrote in a previous post, English is a language of borrowings, and American English is especially so.  I grew up in the terrible era prior to spell-checkers and personal computers, so I suppose my being scarred for life by words like friend and liege and believe is a thing of the past.  Thank goodness for the red squiggly line on my word-processor!

The other topic I wanted to broach is the one most of our parents spent years trying to beat into our heads: the old “me and Joe” vs. the more grammatical “Joe and I.”  Or was it “Joe and me?”  While it’s fairly easy to remember to put Joe first–we can do that by remembering basic manners (one always lets others in the door first or off the elevator first), it’s not as easy to remember when to use “me” or “I” in the sentence after we mention our compatriot’s name.

Well, it is easy to remember.  There’s a trick I learned that makes it easy and you don’t even have to know the parts of speech to remember it: take yourself out of the equation all together:

“Joe and (I/me) went to the store.”  Take Joe out, and you’ll realize quickly that “me went to the store” sounds like Neanderthal-talk.  Thus, you know that the correct choice is “I.” (“Joe and I went to the store.”)

“Give the tickets to Joe and (I/me).”  This one’s trickier.  I routinely hear people mess this one up, assuming they are being grammatically precise–many people would say “Give the tickets to Joe and I.”  But if you take Joe out again, “give the tickets to I” is obviously wrong.  Put Joe back and use me instead. 

So remember: 1) be polite and always let the other person go first in the sentence, and 2) take that person out of the sentence altogether to figure out whether it’s I or me who belongs with him or her.  As for “him or her” versus “them,” well, that’s another post . . .