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?