Saturday, April 09, 2005

Watching Your Language #1
Much Ado About Few

by William Severini Kowinski

Fewer things may seem less important than a small alteration in language, but there may be something more to this one. For in common speech and in print, there are fewer and fewer instances of "few", and more and more of "less."

In particular, it's become common to hear the expression "less people" rather than "fewer people." Is this simply a case of English getting more efficient? Or does it suggest something more troubling?

The distinction between "few" and "less" which has been standard English since at least the 18th century, is simply stated: "few" applies to number, "less" to quantity. While there are the usual ambiguous circumstances, the usage has been clear in the most common instances: "few" or "fewer" people, for example. But these days, "less" is increasingly used.

It is not just an American phenomenon. A quick Internet search yielded examples from most English speaking countries, including articles from the Economist ("less people, more water") and ("Less People Buy Bibles as Condom Sales Soar.") "The use of 'less people' etc. is so common in British English that there seems little point in claiming it as an error," wrote a teacher in Great Britain to her listserv. Another agreed that "fewer" is archaic. "...Less means the same as fewer," wrote someone in a different discussion on the subject. " So what is wrong with plain English, simpler English? Want to write a Victorian novel? Use fewer."

Though those of us who cling to "fewer" are fewer, I don't think we are we less democratic. The resources of a rich language can be used to deploy distinctions, which is crucial to meaningful debate in a democratic society. Communication among the many does not have to mean less precision: it very likely depends on more.

There may even be a more direct attack on certain values of our society reflected in this elimination. Perhaps we need to ask what has changed in the phrase "less people." Is it the grammar of "fewer" and "less," or is it our underlying idea of people?

In changing how we express the outcome of a count, are we changing our conception of what we are measuring? Do we see people only in aggregates, and not in affiliations? Do we now consider people not as integers with integrity, but as quantities that are classified according to common characteristics?

Perhaps in our marketing-minded society, numbers of people translate too easily into quantities of money, or of votes. If votes are just quantities, then stealing them is just theft. But if votes are individual commitments added up, to cheat is to dishonor the people who stood in line at the polls for hours in the rain. "Count the votes" means the voters must count more than the outcome.

The cause of human rights is based on the individual as significant, not as an indistinguishable element in a quantity that doesn't count. When justice or health depend more on quantities of money and power, individuals count less.

Quantity applies to objects, implying a passivity, of being acted upon. Number and counting suggest subject, capable of action: "Stand and be counted." Few can become many. When quantities of money have overpowering political effects, only numbers of people can balance it.

Or perhaps it takes only a few. The sense of individual significance is often conveyed in the most famous instances of "few": "Many are called, but few are chosen." "We happy few, we band of brothers," "A few good men." It's the key to the joke in the early 1960s British comedy "Beyond the Fringe", in an exchange between an officer and a soldier, mocking a World War II movie heroism cliché: "Sir, I want to be one of the few." "Sorry, there are far too many."

Yet we're talking more about "less people," as science suggests the individual, and the individual action, is potentially more powerful than previously believed. The now-famous "butterfly effect" of chaos theory is but one example: it can take even less than a few butterflies to change the weather thousands of miles away.

"Fewer" has a dignity lacking in "less." The change in language may be a done deal, but "less people" doesn't necessarily mean fewer butterflies.

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