The dangerous rise of grammar fundamentalism

This blog will doubtless upset a few friends. Well, so be it. It’s time to nail my colours firmly to the mast.

A few weeks ago, I heard a radio ad which would have delighted many people I know. Because, referring to a reduced number of… I forget what… it made a point of saying “fewer” instead of “less”.

And it made me want to cry.

It might’ve been technically correct, but it was the wrong word to use.

Fundamentalists are scary

Fundamentalism: a bit worrying

I have no desire to repeat arguments that Stephen Fry has already made in a far more eloquent, learned and original way than I ever could.

But as a professional copywriter, this new (or at any rate growing) need to obey imagined rules to appease ill-informed amateur wordsmiths really disturbs me.

Hold on. I’m ranting already. Step back. Deep breath. Calm down. Explain.

I have no doubt that, in this context – a radio ad for a small car, on a middle-of-the-road, commercial radio station – the supposedly incorrect word “less” would have given more impact, and been more effective, than “fewer”.

Some grammar fundamentalists would disagree, of course; believing that “correct” language is always more effective. Fine…

Putting aside my indignation at your lack of regard for my extensive professional experience, and avoiding subjective arguments about which word sounds better, I’ll point out the following objective(ish) facts:

1. Radio ads are paid for by the second, and time is always of the essence. “Less” has one less syllable. (Yes, I mis-used “less” on purpose there, just to annoy you.)

2. Considered as a metrical foot, “fewer” is usually a trochee. (This doesn’t add to my argument, I’m just showing off… and demonstrating that there is a technical aspect to the way words sound.)

3. A radio commercial is spoken, not written English. (And, yes, they’re different.)

4. Most people in the target audience for the commercial in question are unlikely to care about any of the above. (No, I can’t prove that. I was rather hoping you wouldn’t notice.)

The thing that really bothers me is this…

That ad will have been written by a professional copywriter, with the purpose of selling cars for a paying client.

But the word “fewer” wasn’t chosen with that intent. It sticks out as a word chosen to appease fanatics who say it is somehow immoral to use the word “less” to refer to a smaller number of plural items. It was chosen to stop people scoffing and saying “you can’t do that!”.

And, frankly, writing great ad copy is hard enough without having to bend to a set of supposed “rules” which don’t actually exist.

That radio commercial will be judged, not on grammatical correctness, on whether it meets its objectives. The main one of which is selling cars. Pounds, shillings and pence. (Yes, it needed to reflect well on the brand, too, but in this context, using overly-fussy grammar was likely to distance the brand from the listener, doing more harm than good.)

The writer has been hamstrung by a requirement to satisfy someone’s preconceptions about objective “rights” and “wrongs”… and, as a result, hasn’t done as good a job for the paying client as they might have done.

I’m worried, because this obsession with “correctness” seems to be spreading. Once the preserve of nerds writing to The Times, t’interweb has made it a perfectly acceptable pastime to sneer at others’ language. And, crucially, assume you’re right.

You see, many of the pet peeves these grammar fundamentalists express seem to be based upon hearsay alone. Like the worst kind of religion, people have swallowed a set of “rules” without ever stopping to think about whether they make sense.

For example, can I just stop you for a moment, and point out the following…?

  • Of course footballers can give 110%. For example if they borrow from previously untapped reserves, give more than the manager had asked, or grew in stature beyond what they had been able to give before. All of which are perfectly good metaphors for what the manager might mean. More to the point it’s just an expression.
  • It is perfectly possible to be “almost unique” or, for that matter, “very unique”. Two or three examples out of a million are “almost unique”. A far outlier is “very unique”. Do you need me to draw you a diagram? Throw me an absolute, and I’ll modify the hell out of it. While you watch. Does that shock you?
  • The OED is not a guide to whether a word exists, or if you’re somehow allowed to use it a word a certain way. (Since you’re so fond of dictionaries, look up “prescriptive” and “descriptive”.)

You might disagree, of course. That’s perfectly fine. In fact, that’s sort of the point.

I don’t mind you holding those views. Really I don’t. There’s nothing I like better* than a bit of informal sparring over my supposedly unnecessary commas, or the validity of awesome words like “concision”.

It’s when you claim to have a monopoly on acceptable usage…

…when you force your religion down other people’s throats…

…and, crucially, when you interfere (for, let’s face it, no very good reason) with my peers in the copywriting industry doing what they’re paid to do…

…that we part company.

I’m proud to be grammar agnostic. I like the idea, and I understand it, but it’s not my Lord and personal saviour, thanks. Now, will you please get your foot out of my door?

Grammar fundamentalists! Care to bite back? There’s a comment box below. I’m ready for you…

* This, strictly speaking, is a lie. There are lots of things I like better than chatting about language. But it is fun.

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21 thoughts on “The dangerous rise of grammar fundamentalism

  1. Are you talking to me?! I think you have a very good point, and we should always bear in mind that grammatical ‘rules’ continue to evolve, but at this moment in history I would have a major crisis of conscience over using ‘less’ when it should be ‘fewer’. I think that’s more a case of grammatical Catholic guilt than grammatical nazism.

    Mark

  2. As a self-confessed, and indeed unrepentant grammar pedant, I would like to point out that the use of the jarring but accurate word here has, far from alienating people, caused a reaction. This surely is one of the points of advertising, even if it has just made you sit up and notice the ad as it flowed past.

  3. We may not agree with what you’re saying, but we will defend to the death your right to be smug, mannered and condescending.

  4. Sorry to rub salt in the wound, Dave, but you may need a grammar tutorial at a more fundamental level, and my experience tops yours by at least one generation. Your sentence that begins with: “The writer has been hamstrung…” ends with the singular subject somehow miraculously transforming from singular to plural.
    Further down, when you say: “For example, CAN I just stop you for a moment and point out the following,” we all know you can but we may not all want you to, so don’t forget, use MAY instead of CAN when grammar demands it.
    Next thing you will be doing is using loose participles, and that would never do.

    • Ok… I guess, given the subject matter, I open myself up for this kind of response.

      Bill, I had to re-read that first sentence you’re referring to three times before I spotted the problem. I can’t believe you’re objecting to the use of “they” instead of “him or her”. That’s pretty much standard usage these days, and certainly good enough for an informal medium like this. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of readers would understand “they” as a non gender-specific third person rather than ALWAYS denoting a plural.

      On the can / may issue, you’re technically right, of course… but in this context – to my mind – it would’ve felt fussy.

      Unless, of course, you’re being ironic and illustrating my own point for me…

  5. As this correspondence shows, there is no end to the number of decisions a copywriter needs to make within even the most simple of sentences. It’s sensible to consider the issues and try to make conscious, consistent decisions. At the end of the day it’s the persuasiveness of the writing that counts, and most people won’t give these issues a second thought, but when customers do perceive errors it can diminish their impression of the product or organisation. If you’re into recreational proofreading, check out http://nicholsonmark60.wordpress.com/ for my proofing test.

    • You know what? I bet there are LOADS of people who are “into recreational proofreading” – it should be an Olympic sport…

      (Yes, I know that’s a hyphen, not a dash.)

  6. Good to meet you last night, Dave, and I s’pose ten minutes reading about lumpfish before remembering it was lungfish – okay, maybe I don’t win a place in this debate. But anyway. I like “fewer” when it’s needed for accuracy, but mostly I just like language to be effective, which means transparent. Less is good, right? My favourite accurate inaccuracy is “literally incredible” used in a news broadcast. And I like redundancies. Politicians never just consider anything; they consider it “very carefully”. So many of them making “tough choices”; I wonder who’s left to make the easy choices. Coffee one day?

      • Running going really well – recovered from the injury and am now very strong. Working on some exercises that Lou at Cornwall Physio gave me to prevent the back problem from occuring again. I like the blog; what are your views on the use and misuse of the apostrophe? Are you doing much running?

      • Glad to hear it’s going well. I had a surprisingly comfortable 15 miler this morning myself, and that might well precipitate a marathon entry in the near future.

        Abuse of apostrophe’s is something I do find a bit toe-curling. It’s not THAT hard to get right (aside from “its”) and it’s one of those things that can really obscure meaning.

        That said, I think the battle there may be lost. People generally don’t get it (even though there are really good guides around like THIS one from my friends at Radix http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LnbXy3OrnU)…

        …and, although it’s not “correct”, I can completely understand why people feel compelled to use an apostrophe for pluralising something like “GCSE’s”. Adding an “s” after a bunch of other letters does feel a bit weird.

        (I’m reminded of a story of a local authority which advertised – in capitals – a limited supply of lids for its recycling boxes. This prompted the complaint “Why is the council wasting taxpayers’ money on this new-fangled L.I.D.S. system… and what does it stand for anyway?”)

      • Thank you for the link to the apostrophe guide. Do you know the maximum number of letters saved by an apostophe in a contraction and what the word is? I don’t, but it would be fun to know.

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