Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Grammatical Rant

It's been kind of quite here in the blogosphere lately, so I take this opportunity to vent on a subject that bugs the heck out of me.

I was reading the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin this morning and one of my MAJOR issues was there staring me in the face. Was it corruption in Pomona? No. Was it the dismantling of our history? No.

I was faced with this sentence in an article on page A3 by Canan Tasci on parking problems at Chaffey College: ". . . and that increases the amount of people trying to park on campus." Because the offending phrase was used in a direct quote I can't blame Canan Tasci, but it's usually OK for a reporter to clean up any obvious grammar problems. I'm sure that there was probably a "you know" or "like" in there that didn't make it into the quote (just speculation). The problem is that I've seen this type of thing in a LOT of stories in the newspaper (from some good writers) and heard in constantly in TV and radio news reporting. I guess copy editing is one of the victims of the changes in the news industry.

The grammar rule is that if you use a number word (few, fewer, more, less, number, amount, etc.) that a singular noun has to be an amount. You cannot have a number gasoline, but you can have an amount of gasoline so it would be "less gasoline," not fewer gasoline. When a noun is a plural, such a cows, you have a "number of cows," not an amount of cows. Amount refers to "volume" while number refers to (hold on) number. The same is true for less and fewer. Less refers to volume and is used on singular nouns (less gasoline, less cereal, less stress) and fewer refers to plural numbers (fewer cars on the road, fewer accidents on the highways, fewer pills I have to take for the stress).

One of the places where this first reared its ugly head was in grocery checkout lines. The sign above one or two of the lines began reading "10 items or less." The noun items is clearly plural, so it should have been "10 items or fewer" which just didn't sound right. Actually a better sign would have read "fewer than 11 items," but we don't want to go there. This has caused the whole, plural vs. singular noun numbers words thing completely out of whack. We now hear that there were "less people than last year," "less cars on freeway on Fridays," etc.

AT LEAST: Our own local Stater Brothers market does have a sign above the two registers at the south end of the store that state, "15 items or fewer."

This post is a repeat of one on my own personal blog. My personal blog does not carry Pomona Specific entries (that I'll continue to do here as long as Meg allows me to), but my take on issues of importance beyond Pomona. If you're so inclined, you can view by blog HERE


Pride in Garfield Park said...

Thanks for the lesson!

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if in this example we couldn't argue that amount is correct since we are talking about the 'volume' of people parking.

I was also under the impression that most languages evolve, despite purists best efforts.

gilman said...

Mr. Clifford,

Congratulations on your new blog! While I probably won't see eye to eye with you on many issues, it is great to have your insights and
opinions. Good luck..

John Clifford said...

Anon, I maintain, that while you might argue that the number of people is a singular, so the total number is a "volume," it is inappropriate to use the singular "amount" with the plural "people."

But you do make a good point. Ain't English just a wonderful language?

calwatch said...

The other things is that it should read cars, since that's what's being parked. You can have more people on campus without more cars.

Ed said...

Are the cars trying to park or are people trying to park the cars?

I'm excited to see that I don't have a monopoly on being pedantic.

A. S. Ashley said...

...guess no one caught the "by" blog typo...


John Clifford said...

OK Ashley, I'll bite. What is the typo. I'm just not seeing it.

Anonymous said...

Browsing through posts I ran into this one.

"It's been kind of quite here in the blogosphere lately"

If we're to resort to grammatical rants, it's been kind of quite what? And it wasn't like this couldn't have been proofread or fixed. :)