Less is more - Griselda Heppel begs for fewer fewers

Being a frightful pedant, but obviously not wishing to look like one, I always rejoice when someone else brings up the subject of grammar. So thank you, Enid, Sandra, Jan, Bill and Eden forconducting such a lively discussion on the subject on Authors’ Electric a couple of days ago. Various reasons were given for what bad grammar signifies, including poor ability to communicate (yes, often) or a general incompetence (I wouldn’t go that far – but it depends on how disastrous a person’s grammar is I suppose!). To those I’d like to add my particular aversion: intellectual snobbery arising from ignorance. So, here goes:

1.     WHOM. This should only ever be used in the genitive, dative or ablative case and sometimes not even then. Of whom, to and for whom, by, with, from and in whom are all correct. But you don’t always need to be so pure, especially not in realistic dialogue. ‘Who are you talking to?’ rings much more naturally than ‘Whom are you talking to?’ or to be thoroughly Victorian, ‘To whom are you talking?’The worst result of such purity is a tendency for whom to be used where it has no business to be at all. No one – as yet – would ask, ‘Whom do you think I am?’ But even top writers, editors and journalists and increasingly everybody else think it correct to write something like, ‘the man, whom his wife said was out of town, returned later that evening.’ Nooooo! Drop ‘his wife said’ (subordinate clause) and the sentence reads ‘the man whom was out of town returned later that evening’ – which no one in their right mind would actually say or write.

2.     FEWER. I am heartily sick of the self-conscious insertion of this perfectly useful word in all the wrong places. Has ‘less’ become a dirty word, that no one dares use it any more? The rot set in from the supermarket ‘five items or less’ checkout counters, which caused so much distress to millions. Yes, ‘five items or fewer,’ would be better because the items are countable. But fewer has now taken less by storm, barging into all kinds of situations where the number is measured, (as in time or percentage), rather than counted (like individual items). Christmas, for instance, is less than 6 months away, not fewer, and I am less than three years younger than my brother. And it’s less than 50 percent, less  than 10 percent, less  than – for crying out loud – one per cent, NOT fewer, which sadly is what you’ll find in every newspaper, from the tabloids to posh ones like The Times, which sported this crass headline on Monday, 27 July: ‘Fewer than half Disney resorts’ employees have returned to work.’ How can you have fewer than a half? Ye gods.

And finally, saddest of all, HOMAGE. Sad because the ghastly faux French mispronunciation of this lovely old English word can only arise from the fact that no one hears the Christmas bible lessons read anymore. If they did, they’d know that the Three Wise Men did not do Ommaaj (to rhyme with mirage) to the Infant Jesus, but Homage (with a proper H and to rhyme with porage).  Nor did George Orwell write Ommaaj to Catalonia. Homage is a genuine English word which has long been used not just in its original sense of submission/worship, but metaphorically, too, as in a book/play/film/any piece of art created in admiration of a more famous one. So why do self-important artists/critics feel they have to use the French word, which isn’t even spelt the same, having an extra m? Yes, homage probably came over with the Normans but then so did thousands of English words, and these days we say attention, not attonssyon, and decision, not desseezyon. 

 A pedant, moi?

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:
and her children's books:


Bill Kirton said…
(I almost began with 'I totally agree...' but suspect that purists might argue that 'partial' agreement is something other than agreement.) Anyway, I have a list of intolerables such as those you highlight to which new 'fashions' are frequently added. The current trend is for prefacing sentences with 'So'. 'Tell us what you do, Rodney' triggers the response, 'So I'm a chartered accountant...' (or whatever) The word 'Well' already serves (irritatingly for some) as a sort of noise to make as one gathers one's thoughts; 'So' already has a clear function, standing in as a short cut for 'As a result of which...'. If my TV were sentient, it would bitterly resent the uncivilised expressions this misuse causes me to throw at it with such frequency.
Jan Needle said…
To me, grammar is purely a description of generally accepted practice. No longer does sad mean full up, no longer is so a madness-driver. How is it different from (to, than) well? Well, I ask you. If you know what someone means, run, slide, go with it, along with it, embrace it. And (whoopsl, I started a sentence with and) enjoy. (Double whoops - Is there no escaping these harmless, dreadful, appalling, perfectly acceptable or unexceptionable, rage inducing words?) Death to grammarians, especially those who think English grammar's got anything to do with Latin. Nil desdemonia drownium, I say.
I've only come across the 'omaaage' thing at work (in an art gallery) - I think it started with some artwork titles that were actually in French, but anyway I still find it really annoying and pretentious.
Griselda Heppel said…
Goodness, when did sad mean full up? I can't make that out at all. But do agree with Bill about So beginning every sentence, particularly in interviews. Nothing is more guaranteed to kill the interview stone dead because it gives a weird emphasis to the reply which distracts from what the person is actually saying. Still, I guess we'll get used to it, eventually, as Jan says (by which time there'll be another word there instead grr).

Thank you all - lovely quirky comments. Slightly nervous about the death threat, though. 😂
Eden Baylee said…
So ... I love this post!

Heheheh, seriously though, Griselda, I'm less of a pedant than I used to be, and I concur with the irksome nature of the grammatical errors you've highlighted. On my side of the pond, the use of the apostrophe has made a resurgence for no reason. Examples like:

We are closed on Sunday's
Employee's Only
It's (when it should be its) <<< Big pet peeve.

Funny how some mistakes come in waves. Some get corrected, and others are incorporated into the dictionary. The word "irregardless" is a controversial one - listed in dictionaries as a portmanteau and non-standard word, yet, it's there.

English may be an evolving language, but some word choices are simply - wrong. We should call these errors for what they are even though they have extensive use. Like you say, media is a big culprit in perpetuating bad grammar!

Hope you're well!
Griselda Heppel said…
Absolutely agree with you re word choices just being wrong! But somehow they catch on.... and that’s that. Some of these changes are quite fun, eg pristine literally means former, as in ‘the ramshackle house was restored to its pristine order’. But because people thought the word sounded like crystal, or something, they used it to mean clear/bright, so that’s what pristine means now. That evolution must have annoyed a lot of purists... to no avail.

Yes, apostrophes, aargh. I think automatic spell checker is often to blame, bossily inserting apostrophes in all the wrong places and if people are writing quickly they don’t notice. (Infuriating to have to keep going back and correct something you had right in the first place.)

So glad you loved my post, Eden!
Eden Baylee said…
Haha, I love it when I learn something new. I've been using 'pristine' incorrectly!

I always thought it meant clean and bright.

Go know!

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

The Year of Just Being There: Dipika Mukherjee looks back at 2016

A Week of Three Libraries -- Julia Jones

Close Reading | Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose | Karen Kao

Rules is Rules, discovers Griselda Heppel, Even When They're Not.