submitting slavishly...

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Lately, I've been super-aware of people saying that British English "slavishly" copies American English. Like this:
 the UK slavishly adopts Americanisms !! (from an email to me this week)
“To be snooty about Americans, while slavishly admiring them; this is another crucial characteristic of being British.”  (From the Economist, but quoted this week in Toni Hargis's reflection on the recent Word of Mouth on English)
It's an interesting choice of words, and I was reminded of it this morning when I read the television critic Mark Lawson writing about BBC4 (my emphasis added):
The original 2002 mission statement also included “international cinema”, and this was expanded to include foreign television, which could be regarded as BBC4’s most lasting legacy. Its screening of Mad Men was formative in changing the UK’s attitude to US drama from dismissiveness to submissiveness.
Why slavishly? Why submissive? Lawson was probably pleased with his rhyme, but why not dismissiveness to enjoyment or appreciation? In this case, it's not even that it's a torrent of US drama that the viewer cannot avoid, as BBC4 doesn't broadcast very much American drama. The paragraph goes on:
Its imported Swedish and Danish hits – including The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen – established that subtitled stories could find a British audience, encouraging other channels to shop from Scandinavian suppliers, and also to adopt the slower rhythms of Scandi-drama in homegrown series such as Broadchurch and The Missing.
What, the homegrown series didn't submit to the Scandinavian rhythms, but adopted them? Don't you mean they slavishly copied them? 

Now, of course, slavish isn't the same thing as enslaved. The relevant OED sense is defined  as

Servilely imitative; lacking originality or independence.

Available here
But it's an interesting word and image. The adjective slavish is used to similar degrees in AmE and BrE.  Most often it's followed by the noun devotion in both countries, but in the UK it's about as likely to be followed by adherence while in the US, the next most frequent noun is fear. Slavish fear involves a very different interpretation of slavish than slavish devotion does. It calls more directly on literal slavery, with the existence of a fear-inspiring master.

The adverb slavishly is found nearly twice as much in BrE (in the GloWBE and NOW corpora). Google Books corpus shows that the two countries used to use it at similar rates, but it's been falling off in the US since the 1960s. Perhaps Americans find it a bit more distasteful since the civil rights movement. (Maybe that accounts for my reaction to it.)

For me, the weird thing about the use of slavishly in the 'copying American English' context is that you can't have a slave without a master. And being a master has to be intentional. But American English isn't trying to have a slave.

Yes, Americans want to export stuff. But they don't care a lot about exporting American English--at least, not as much as the British establishment cares about exporting (and enforcing?) British English. (The reasons for this American lack of interest are complex, but contributing factors are that the British are already doing the work and the feelings that any English is good enough and that British might even be superior.)  Exporting the language is a bigger industry in the UK-- most of the dictionaries for learners of English as a foreign language come from the UK (in fact, that's the only kind of dictionary that some UK publishers work on). The government funds the British Council (which also makes a lot of its own money through the IELTS language test). The US has been much later to that parade--and half(-)hearted about joining it.

The language continues to be Britain's empire--and imperialism seems to be the frame through which many Britons frame relationships with "bigger players", like the US and the European Union. Once the British were the imperialists, and now other relationships of interaction and dependency are framed as if they are the coloni{s/z}ed. There is often a disconnect between the complaint that American English is "taking over" and fact that it all started when Britain took over. Not to mention that Britain has benefited hugely from American English's role in keeping their language relevant to the rest of the world.

I compare this to thinking about British English and French. About how in the 19th century the British added the -me on programme in imitation of the French spelling.* How the British couldn't sell zucchini (the particular hybrid was originally Italian), but ate up courgettes. How they're partial to French-inspired spellings like colour and centre. British English is often deferential to French--after all, for a long time the aristocracy spoke French. But although French speakers were, at points in English history, literally the overlords (and then they had two centuries' worth of wars with them) I don't hear complaints that English has slavishly copied French. (Well, I do hear them from myself sometimes. Those [heavily tongue-in-cheek] complaints were recorded for a podcast that'll be released in July.)

All of this is related to the themes from two posts ago. These things are at the forefront of my mind as I write the conclusion for my book, so I'm testing out ideas here. But the slavishly/submissiveness wordings also resounded particularly this week after Ben Carson's comments about "involuntary immigrants" and also reading about another "unpopular invader" from America, the gr{a/e}y squirrel. Not comparing these things, you understand, just hyper-aware of how 'migration' and 'slave'-related words are being used these days.

So, are the British brainwashed by American English into slavish submission? Have you other thoughts on these metaphors and their use?

* The earlier spelling program has come back from the US and is now used in Britain as computing jargon. The Americanness of computer jargon spelling (program, dialog box, disk) is taken by some as an unwelcome American incursion. But in my experience British computer types use these spellings as (more AmE?) shibboleths. Those who know not to use the general-purpose British spellings for the computer-related meanings are accepted as reasonably knowledgeable. Those who don't might be in for some instruction on the topic.


  1. To me, speaking AmE, labeling someone or something "slavish" is a pretty severe criticism. However, I have also noticed that my few British friends, even though they are the same racial background and roughly the same economic status, use what I would consider to be much stronger language when criticizing something. I would think, then that the more frequent appearance of "slavishly" in BrE could be partly accounted for by the stronger tone of criticism. (Of course, this is a small sample size, too.)

  2. Oxford Dictionaries Online gives a subsidiary meaning which corresponds to what has long been my own use and understanding.

    (1. In a servile or submissive manner.)

    1.1 In a way that shows no attempt at originality.
    ‘they adhere slavishly to a script written for them’
    ‘children slavishly copy their football heroes’
    ‘The restaurants here are either dull and conservative or slavishly derivative in an almost adolescent way, without the wherewithal to carry it off.’
    ‘There's no need for him to slavishly ape Hitchcock to be a great film-maker.’
    ‘Among her pet hates are what she describes as 'transient fashion', 'fashion victims', and slavishly following what celebrities are wearing.’
    ‘He isn't weighed down by the responsibility of adhering too slavishly to their melodic core.’
    ‘Flattering as it may be to our egos, the Japanese don't always slavishly ape our tastes in entertainment.’
    ‘I want a manager to have the freedom to select stocks, not slavishly follow the index.’
    ‘If he does not slavishly copy appearances, there is no brag in his brush, no need to impress with his gifts.’
    ‘The group is so slavishly imitative that it has not even noticed that the US tax year starts on January 1, but the New Zealand one starts on April 1.’
    ‘For some musicians, punk was less a style to be slavishly imitated than the sound of a door opening.’
    ‘Instead of slavishly copying the current trend or concept, why not try to do things a little differently?’

    In this 1.1 sense, there is no master — at least no human master. Typically, we use the word for thraldom to some habit which we chose to adopt once upon a time, but now persist in uncritically.

    I'll grant that slavishly admiring them comes across as the servile sense [1]. But slavishly adopts Americanism is ambiguous:

    • sense [1]:- adopts consciously because America (or the American language) is powerful

    • sense [1.1] :- adopts uncritically because it always has done

    It may well be that the writer meant sense [1] but hid the sentiment behind a wording that could mean sense [1.1].

    To be charitable to those who differentiate slavishly adopt Americanisms and adopt the slower rhythms of Scandi-drama, it may simply point to a contrast between uncritical and appreciatively critical borrowing.

  3. But although the French were, at points in English history, literally the overlords ...

    That was way, way, way back. And the spelling — together with pronunciation and some other features — was proudly different from the usage of Paris.

    1. And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
      After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
      For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe. :-)

    2. Yes, I was wondering how to include this in a posting.

      Tony Howatt in his History of English Language Teaching took this to imply that there was at the time an actual language teaching approach developed in England. I don't believe it. To me Chaucer's prioress is a sympathetic but comic character. Among her many 'accomplishments' is an ability to show off what we would now call 'schoolgirl French'. But Chaucer,as a some-time diplomat knew that the real purpose of learning foreign languages was to communicate with foreigners.

      Centuries earlier, the aristocracy (most of them) had used Anglo-Norman French to communicate with each other, but those days were long, long gone. The dialect persisted among lawyers but (if Wikipedia is to be believed) it had not been used as a spoken idiom to plea in courts for a generation or so before Chaucer's day.

      When I went to teach Russian to academics back at the start of the seventies, I encountered middle-aged scholars who spoke English full fair and featously after the school of the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages, for spoken English of London (or Washington) was to them unknown. (It was different for their students and younger colleagues who'd had the opportunity to converse with English speakers.)

  4. I've changed it from 'the French' to 'French speakers' to be more accurate.

    It was a long time ago, but the English aren't bad at holding grudges. ;)

    1. Actually, surely it was the English who were the overlords of vast swathes of what is now France! Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, ruled over a huge empire - in terms of travel time, one of the largest we have had!

    2. Lynne

      It was a long time ago, but the English aren't bad at holding grudges. ;)

      Nice try, but you're still in anachronism-land, conflating two very different grudges.

      1. Grudges held by the lower orders against the French-speaking aristocracy in the early Middle Ages persisted for many generations, becoming grudges against the English-speaking aristocracy.

      In that era, language was not identified with nation or state. England was a trilingual society. (The third language was Latin.) French speakers lorded three major kingdoms: England, Burgundy and France — not to mention smaller political entities. In France, speakers of Francien lorded over speakers of Breton, Occitan and Catalan — not to mention languages and dialects of lesser prestige.

      2. In the Modern Age, after language became identified with the State in England and France (and others, of course) a different grudge arose — not among the lower orders but among intellectuals and people rich enough to be aware of fashions. The grudge was against the perceived arrogance of the French in scholarship, arts and what was later called good taste.

      That conservative curmudgeon Samuel Johnson articulated this grudge in his adaptation of Juvenal's Third Satire. In place of decrying the invasion of Greek culture into Rome, Johnson wrote

      Forgive my Transports on a Theme like this,
      I cannot bear a French metropolis

      Johnson's cheerleader, David Garrick celebrated English military, philosophic al and poetic prowess to set up to a climactic

      And Johnson, well arm'd like a hero of yore,
      Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more.

      The forty French were the scholars still labouring to produce a dictionary, which Johnson had done single-handedly — well, almost.

      This second grudge is the one associated with slavishly copying the fashion of another society. In the past at least, was it not unheard of for Americans to express similar attitudes to British and general European culture?. Certainly there was a time when Australians emerged from a cultural cringe to decry the habit of slavishly copying us Brits. The French, of course, have the biggest grudge of all against what the perceive to be slavish adopting of an alien culture.

    3. Mrs Redboots

      I doubt whether Eleanor and her son could speak more than a few words of English. The Angevin Empire was French-speaking (its rulers, that is). It's said that even in the next generation Richard the Lion Heart could speak no English.

  5. As an American living in the UK, I've had basically these very thoughts. And I share the intuition that Britain seems to "frame" its relationships with other states in a hierarchical/imperialism-evoking way - e.g. it seems more important to determine who is influencing who, as though influence can't go both ways? I get the sense that Americans are happy to "happily adopt" British things in the way the Brits have adopted Scandinavian crime dramas.

  6. "...that British might even be superior...."
    A belief that I've dined off, as the saying goes, for nigh on forty (OMG) years in the US!

  7. Economics & real (or digital) world forces rather than slavery? UK media I notice moving towards AmE are those most concerned with & in touch with online / digital audiences. AmE predominates there. So BBC & Guardian online bow to US editors/norms on some things eg banning "swathe" (read "swath") or avoiding "which" in defining relative clauses, to take small but persistent examples. Too troublesome to argue with AmE-oriented sub-editors - BrE will probably continue to submit. Luckily, other new differences will pop up, Lynne.

    1. But to say 'slavishly' is to deny the agency in that. The Guardian, for example, is getting more readers in the US and making a conscious choice on that. Could be seen as the Guardian trying to get Americans to slavishly follow them (the discord of BrE would not allow for the unthinking devotion of slavishiness) rather than BrE slavishly following.

    2. Yes, I'm agreeing with you about "slavishly". But not about following, which seems inevitable to me. Not arguing against SbaCL (wouldn't dare), as new differences occur all the time.

  8. "Americans ... don't care about exporting AmE" - not explicitly but don't US commentators / editors often seem more prescriptive - they say you are wrong! - than Brits? Hence the Guardian, for example, gives way on minor points like the ones I mentioned (swath etc).

    1. They generally prescribe to other Americans, though. In my experience, willing to tolerate if other norms/styles are made clear to them. Part of the problem is that Americans often assume that their linguistic conservatism is rooted in BrE (things like the which/that distinction--which really got started with Fowler, and try to/and, which has been changing faster in UK).

  9. Yes, that's true, Lynne. But it is just not worth the bother in a busy newsroom - hence they go with the flow, which is bound to be towards the dominant dialect. More obvious, or first noticed, in online media, perhaps, than in spoken English outside the media?

    1. Written language is where we tend to come together. (Grammatically and lexically, if not always in spelling!) Spoken is where we tend to drift apart.

    2. Yes, Lynne - the "coming together" in writing / online seems inevitable to me. I suppose I get slightly irritated when people don't notice they are adopting a new or AmE usage, rather than objecting to it on principle. But I am sure, despite my #DifferenceWhichWas theme, that there will always be plenty of differences to study and enjoy!

  10. There's a political dialogue that I think might be spilling over here. The 'special relationship' was forever questioned when Tony Blair was seen as (and called) "Bush's poodle." Things with the next US and then the next UK administration seemed (or were reported as being) somewhat strained, along with on-going reports that various people in the British government are trying to dismantle the NHS and institute a US-style healthcare system (because that's so good).

    Our glorious leaders compare our business culture unfavourably to the US, complaining we don't produce enough entrepreneurs, we don't produce enough world-leading companies, we don't turn world-leading research into huge profit-making companies in the same way that the US does.

    And there's a feeling (justified or not, largely not, but the British not only hold a grudge well - the Welsh hate the English for the murder of Owain Glyndwr in 1415 amongst other things - we dislike incomers and their "peculiar ways" pretty well too) that whatever happens in the US, will inevitably come here within a decade. So I think that influences, consciously or otherwise, how many commentators think about US culture. It's inevitably going to come here, we slavishly follow it, in the sense that Beliebers slavishly follow his twitter musings and so on, or those with a different social awareness consumed everything from ClexaCon that they could get hold of on YouTube. There's not necessarily a master (or mistress for ClexaCon), but a sense of uncritical following - and some kick-back against that.

    The contrast you make with ScandiNoir is interesting because you could certainly argue with things like ABBA, Ikea and now ScandiNoir they certainly have a huge influence on our culture. Living in a city with an anglicised Norse name it's hard for me to get away from the memory of how long that influence has been around.

    Perhaps the difference is, they've been here for so long they're not incomers any more?

    1. Thanks, Eloise, a lot of good points. I feel there is often political feeling and an anti-globalisation element involved in some criticism of Americanisation.

    2. Owain Glyndŵr wasn't murdered. He was last seen in 1412 and Adam of Usk's chronicle reports his death by natural causes in 1415. The pardon offered to, and refused by, Maredudd ab Owain Glyndŵr and his father in father in 1417 mainly emphasised Maredudd and historians have taken the tone to indicate that the English thought Owain was dead. Maredudd eventually accepted a pardon, offered to himself alone, in 1421.

  11. I'm surprised by the high frequency of the phrase "slavish fear" - I don't think I've ever heard or used it (my L1 is AmE). Googling reveals that it comes up a lot (exclusively?) in online discussions of Christianity, which would explain my ignorance and the high frequency in the U.S.

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  13. There appear to be many themes that can be spread around the word "slavish". One is the cultural meaning of the word; after all "Britons never ever shall be slaves" is sung at the last Night of the Proms, and perhaps as the military approach of the US anthem supports the bearing of arms, so "Rule Britannia" highlights concerns about slavery. Secondly, the British-American relationship is not simple and straightforward. Winston Churchill was half-American (I'm intrigued if that made a difference to world politics), but the US had air bases on British soil and could be seen to be in power over us in various ways. Perhaps we still see ourselves as Airstrip 1 (1984), dependent upon and alternately ignored by and despised by the US government.

  14. David Crosbie's meaning 1.1 In a way that shows no attempt at originality is the only meaning I am familiar with, and I can't understand slavishly admire. Surely the suggestion is not admiration in the way that slaves admire their masters! I wonder whether it is intended to mean unthinkingly as an extension of the unoriginal meaning..

    I wouldn't read that much into what Mark Lawson says. I don't wish to run the risk of libel but at a minimum he is a trifle pretentious.

    As for grudges, I don't believe the English do hold grudges any more than most people. We may be tribally xenophobic - though I think we're not very good at it - but that's not the same as kicking a Russian and saying "That's for Balaclava". I think we just like a good curmudgeonly grumble, and foreigners make good uncontroversial targets.

    1. My thought too. Slavishly = unthinkingly, without modification.

    2. That's part of why the word drives me crazy. When I was talking with Matthew Engel about Americanisms in Britain the other week, his examples of things he thought had been 'slavishly imitated' were often things that I felt he used differently than I would. There are so many modifications, but few seem to be interested in appreciating them.

    3. Yes Lynne, but 'slavish imitation' needn't be successful imitation.

      Matthew Engel may well be correct in claiming that many British people adopt American English words and expressions without thinking. Personally I don't think that's a bad thing, but he reckons that such an admixture is to the detriment of what went before, and what went before is a closer reflection of British cultural values. It doesn't alter his case if the admixture is of words and expressions not quite properly understood. As the old tailors — allegedly — would say, 'Never mind the quality. Feel the width'.

      The charge is that we copy stuff unthinkingly without conscious modification. The involuntary modifications are of interest only to those of us who are interested in both American English and British.

    4. As a Canadian, the first thought of how to use "slavish" is in respect to following a pattern, reading a speech, etc. It is following the instructions without allowing any use for creativity. I would never use slavish to describe fear although I could understand it being used to modify devotion. I could understand it but I would never use it.

    5. On "slavish" etc driving us crazy: does this extend, Lynne, to usages such as "to own somebody / to get owned" - do they have unpleasant slavery connotations?

    6. Clydesdale: I have heard complaints about that expression. Here's the first one that came up when I googled:

    7. Oh, thanks for that link, Lynne.

    8. I never expected to see League of Legends come up here. My kid plays that game.

      The usual spelling in that context is "pwned" and there is some disagreement on the pronunciation including on whether or not the "p" is silent since this is gamer slang and more often written the said aloud. Wikipedia quite nicely gives a number of pronunciations in IPA under the entry for "pwn", but possibly more pertinent is this discussion:

  15. @Rachel Ganz: Rule Britannia doesn't highlight concerns about slavery. It is (to Elgar's chagrin) an arrogant jingoistic assertion of Britain's global superiority in perpetuity, voicing an assumption that the British would always be rulers and masters; a similar sentiment appears in Deutschland Uber Alles. But mainly it's a jolly good song for a sing-along and to hell with the words.

    1. The sentiment of the words Deutschland über alles isn't the same, however. The meaning of the text (as written in pre-1871 Germany) is not "Germany above all others" (that would be: Deutschland über allen) but "Germany above all other considerations", i.e. a call to place the idea of a one-nation Germany above local loyalty to a myriad of ancien régime dukes and princes, etc.

    2. And there's that, that it it's Handel, and adopted by sane Protestants as a hymn. "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken. . . ." yadda, yadda.

  16. The government funds the British Council (which also makes a lot of its own money through the IELTS language test). The US has been much later to that parade--and half(-)hearted about joining it.

    A bad example. TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) is eighteen years older than IELTS. And when it started as ELTS it had no commercial value.

    It's true, though, that Britain is surprisingly successful at exporting English teaching — physical materials and human teachers —, and the US is surprisingly unsuccessful. There are numerous forces in play, and I think this may be the key. In various countries where I have taught (or otherwise helped the teaching) it's the British players who have got it together, while some excellent American initiatives have proved disjointed and less effective than they deserved.

    OK, we started with a great advantage: the huge market for textbooks and teachers that was the British Empire. I saw the legacy of this in my first job, teaching English to immigrant children back in the sixties. Publishers were busy developing the markets for adult learners and what they coyly term 'young adults', but there was a dearth of extensive reading material for children learning English. Several series created for Indian and African primary schools were still in print. They weren't exactly ideal, but they were early the least worst solutions.

    But the American English language teaching industry had the economic muscle to catch up and overtake us. And American Linguistics was the dominant voice in the theories of language and language learning. It didn't happen. The outstanding work of American Applied Linguistics wasn't properly exploited by American publishers. When American sociolinguists developed the concept of communicative competence, it was British academics and publishers who converted it into communicative language teaching materials. At least, that's seemed to me in the counties where I have worked. There may well be significant successes in other markets, but that doesn't disguise the fact of relative failure in the (quite numerous) markets that I've observed.

    It's not that we've set out to teach British English. In my extensive career I never came across anybody who cared about the Britishness of what we were doing. We see English as a resource for which there happens to be a vast global demand.

    • In a way, it's like oil. You don't set out to sell British oil or American oil. In fact British publishers have been known to commission American editions of successful British English materials.

    • In another way, it's like pageantry or the Royal Family. Other countries have one or both, but our versions enjoy greater goodwill in some markets. And we sell them as distinctively well executed, not as distinctly British.

    • In yet another way, it's like the London theatre industry, which depends on a reputation for excellence, no matter how many of the shows are from America.

    Don't get me wrong. I didn't join or stay in English Language Teaching because it was a profitable industry. But it is successful, and that success allows people like me to enjoy a satisfying career.

    1. Yes, I was thinking of the dictionaries and Cambridge and Oxford materials, more than the exam, which I only mentioned to make clear that the BC is not 100% government-funded.

    2. Both CUP and OUP produce American English materials. Of course, it isn't their core interest, but they've made some shrewd moves. Among the BrE books they've adapted for the AmE market are the hugely successful course boo series Headway and the equally succesjful grammar workbook series Grammar in Use.

      And both publishers are into American English in dictionaries. I remember your criticisms in the past, but these are complaints about execution. The policy is to give parity to AmE within the range of dictionaries. Not easy for publishers with their history, so they sometimes get it wrong.

      The conclusion I draw from all this is that British publishers are market-savvy. They know that the commodity for sale is English and that an important sector of the international market is a demand for American English.

      By the way, the development of IELTS was largely taken over by the Cambridge Examination Board, while the BC does the administration. I've no idea how they share the money.

      I don't think any US agency could cash in on administering TOEFL, as it doesn't involve comparable expense in training examiners etc.

  17. More on the British Council. In many ways it's like the BBC — supported financially because it furthers British soft power, but holding itself at arm's length in a state of relative independence. The UK government doesn't step in to alter BC or BBC policy.

    America doesn't really have an equivalent. You've had a succession of agencies — or the same agency under different names — which come across as vehicles for propagating the US Government's agenda. It does/They do often excellent work, but fail often to project the appearance of independence. (A similar comparison may be made between the BBC and the Voice of America.)

    The story goes that Lord Kitchener looked out from the British Embassy in Cairo and saw the education system and cultural life dominated by personnel and institutions supported by France. The professional class was growing up with high respect for French culture, to the possible detriment of their react for Britain. So the British Council was born.

    Outdoing the French is not the modern priority, but the mission is still to encourage affection and respect for British institutions. For many decades, this has included encouraging the learning of English. Not British English, simply English.

    This was tied in with the granting of scholarships for study at British universities. When I first worked on a British Council contract, direct teaching centres in Council centres overseas were limited to preparing scholars. The ELTS test and its quirky predecessor the Davies Test were purely for these scholars and the British universities they hoped to attend. When and where the Council saw an empty niche in the local English teaching market, they encouraged private schools like International House to step in and fill it — with discreet support. This changed some time in the seventies, when the Council decided to cash in on the teaching and testing expertise that had been developed for a non-commercial purpose.

    The British Council has a symbiotic relationship with the English Language Teaching industry. This was true when they were non-commercial supporters and doubly true now that they are also commercial players. The success of the industry contributes to British soft power. As I've already argued, that success stems from expertise and shrewd appreciation of the markets. That's what the British Council sets out to support; the Britishness of British English is an irrelevance.

    British Council support for the industry has touched academic theorists and commercial publishers. Perhaps this has played a part in the productive co-operation that I described in my previous post. And their support for people like me to work with professionals in different countries creates a fellowship which in an agreeable way also contributes to British soft power.

  18. But (with the greatest respect to Lynne), we Britons do slavishly copy American practice (at least, far too many of us do). My spam filter is set to reject anything with a subject line that starts “Shop our ...”, and a recent e-mail from J*** L**** plc with the subject line “Please Tell Us What You Think” sent me into a paroxysm of rage, followed by an immediate furious letter of protest to T** W*** Esq,. Customer Lead Experience, pointing out that in British English, only the first word of a sentence should be capitalised unless any subsequent word is a proper name. And yes, I did use the word "slavishly" in the letter when I accused J*** L**** plc of "slavishly copying the recent ridiculous American practice of capitalising every word of the ‘Subject’ field” ...

    1. pointing out that in British English, only the first word of a sentence should be capitalised unless any subsequent word is a proper name

      An extraordinary new-fangled rule no doubt invented by prescriptive grammarians and followed slavishly by generations of schoolboys, and latterly also schoolgirls, their slavishness being enforced by pedagogues with power.

      It's perfectly natural to use capitalisation to mark the importance of a word (or rather the importance of what the word signifies). We did it for centuries, and stopped for no good reason. Our greatest poet and dramatist was published with this style of capitalisation. I'm not sure how long after Shakespeare that the tyranny of the proper name rule was enforced.

      I never really understood what place proper name deserved in a grammar. It's all very circular: we must capitalise because it's a proper name, and we know it's a proper name because it's capitalised.

      Writers of English for commercial purposes make conscious decisions to change their style according to what is more effective and acceptable to potential readers. The most noticeable differences from past practice are in punctuation. Against the odd objector like you, they have to balance the reactions of readers as a whole.

      Even if the capitalised spelling is a copy of American practice, it's a conscious and reasoned choice.

    2. Chaaoo6,

      I've just published in response to your mention of

      only the first words of a sentence.

      But now I see that you end up referring to

      every word of the 'Subject' field.

      I find it preposterous to insist that punctuation rules for sentences must apply to non-sentences such as titles, headlines, addresses for correspondence, notices, advertisements, slogans etc.

      David Crystal points out that Lynne Truss was obliged to break her own rule in her dedication at the front of Eats Shoots and Leaves.

      To the memory of the striking Bolshevik
      printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905,
      demanded to be paid the same rate for
      punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby
      directly precipitated the first
      Russia nRevolution

      This breaks the Truss rule

      Every time a sentence end, there' a full stop. It's as easy as that.

      Because it isn't as easy as that. The convention of dedications is different.

    3. I see that the Penguin Books editor of Stephen Pinker's The Sense of Style 'slavishly followed' Truss's rule rather than copying what she actually wrote. This book also quotes Truss's dedication but — quite wrongly — ends it with a full stop.

    4. David -- Whether or not "Please tell us what you think" ends with a full-stop, it would appear to me to be a well-formed sentence, and therefore subject to the normal rules for the casing thereof. Not only was it used as the subject field of the message, it was repeated verbatim in the body : "Dear Mr Taylor,

      Please Tell Us What You Think

      We sent you an email recently inviting you to complete ..."

      I agree with you that the rule for the capitalisation of sentences cannot be arbitrarily applied to non-sentences, but in this case I would argue that PTUWYT was a full sentence and should therefore have been capitalised accordingly.

    5. OK, I now see what you're objecting to. But the fact that something is a grammatical sentence doesn't persuade me that it must unquestionably be punctuated as one.

      Sentences ending in a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark are a necessary convention in connected prose. But I see nothing wrong in punctuating an isolated sentence in the sea way as a headline or title.

    6. Stripping punctuation from particular elements of commercial correspondence is a policy, not 'slavish copying' of somebody else's norms.

      The most obvious example is in addresses. A modern business letter often has no punctuation at all in places where it's nineteenth-century equivalent would have been stuffed with full stops and commas.

    7. David -- Whether this particular instance is a result of a company policy, or whether it is an example of am individual "slavishly copying", is clearly moot since neither of us can know. If J*** L**** plc respond to my letter (which I am reasonably confident that they will), we may know more. I will report back.

    8. I wrote above

      'Against the odd objector like you, they have to balance the reactions of readers as a whole.'

      But now that you've sent them a stroppy response, the balance has tipped on your favour. Several supermarkets have cravenly — nay, slavishly — bowed to the shrill demands for

      six items or fewer.

      I consider out prissy and objectionable, but people like me didn't protest. So we don't count.

    9. I don't get why "Please Tell Us What You Think" should be capitalized like that. I'm a speaker of AmE and have never knowingly encountered it, and would object just as strenuously if I had.

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    11. I've looked at my emails from John Lewis and Waitrose and found something interesting. Each has a string similar in function to Please Tell Us What You Think — that is to say they identify a particular marketing campaign. In particular they identify the individual campaign to John Lewis's computer system. Each is displayed under the Reply to line in the heading, not in the body of the email. If you click Reply, the string is inserted into the Subject box.

      I strongly suspect that Please Tell Us What You Think functions in the same way — that if you click on Reply it will appear in the Subject box in your email of reply.

      And there's the rub. A full stop would be inappropriate in a Subject box, therefore you can't have one in the body of an email like the one Chaaoo6 received.

      Of course, most marketing-campaign identifiers don't take the form of grammatical sentences. This particular one stands out because

      1. Most unusually, it's a full sentence.

      2. Rather unusually it appears in a full message between the salutation and a body of prose text.

  19. "Slavish copying" is a term of art in copyright law, indicating the kind of activity that lacks the originality necessary to earn copyright protection -- for example in

    1. That's interesting, and makes me wonder whether said term of art leaked from legal reports to the wider media and thence to the world at large, perhaps with a rather vaguer meaning, but with a flavour of iniquity lingering about it. It's reminiscent of some of the discussion about lewd in these pages a while back.

      Certainly, such an origin is far from the cottonfields and empires called to some minds.

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    1. 1. I don't regard x items or fewer as 'correct'. It's a bogus rule. The only rule I recognise is that *fewer milk, *fewer bread is not grammatical English while only less milk, less bread is acceptable. The bogus rule is a slavish application of the principle that the converse of a rule must be equally valid.

      2. The same conventions that disallow a full stop in a heading may also favour title case — and did so in this particular example.

    2. We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
      Than when we’d first begun.

      Doesn't that sound wrong?

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  22. I agree : "less milk, less bread" is completely acceptable (and correct); but "six loaves or less" is unacceptable and incorrect -- it should read "six loaves or fewer", as the supermarkets are now wisely coming to accept. "Fewer" is required with count nouns such as "loaves", "less" is appropriate in the context of non-count nouns such as "bread". Gowers (1973) writes "'Less' and 'Fewer' -- the following is taken from Good and Bad English by Whitten and Whitaker: ... Less takes a singular noun, fewer a plural noun; thus less opportunity, fewer opportunities. [End of quotation from Whitten and Whitaker. Gowers then continues ...]Here is a good example of the wrong use: '... including only a handful of West Indians and even less Asians'. Not only should less be fewer, but ..." whilst Quirk (1985) concedes that "There is a tendency to use less (instead of fewer) ... also with count nouns ..." but goes on to note "This usage is however often condemned".

    1. Quirk (1985) concedes that "There is a tendency to use less (instead of fewer) ... also with count nouns ..." but goes on to note "This usage is however often condemned".

      I read it differently. Quirk et al report that

      'There is often as tendency to use less (instead of fewer)'

      but concede that

      'This usage is however often condemned.'

      But this section refers not to the construction

      NUMBER or less/more

      but to the choice of quantifier as determinerbefore a noun.

      Later on, in their treatment of quantifying words as PRONOUNS they explain their table thus:

      'As in the case of determiner function, there are prescriptive objections against the use of less and least with plural nouns. Yet they are widely used in informal English. Hence, alongside fewer changes and and less noise, the table allows for the possibility of less changes. Examples:

      There used to be more women in the country,
      ............................. fewer
      But now there are

      The supermarket construction differs in another way; as well as being pronominal it compares with a number. I can't find any treatment of this in Quirk et al, but it features in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

      'The relations between less and fewer is fairly complex. In non-count singulars only less is possible. Kim has less/*fewer money than Pat. In plural NPs we have

      i She left less then ten minutes ago.
      ii Less/Fewer than thirty of the students had voted.
      iii He made no less/fewer than fifteen mistakes.
      iv You pass if you make ten mistakes or less/?fewer.
      v He took less/*fewer pains to convince us than I'd expected.
      vi He made fewer/less mistakes than the others.'

      There are interesting discussions of each. Fewer is 'virtually impossible' in [i]. Less is more common than fewer in sentences like [ii] and [ii]. Then comes the one that concerns us:

      'Construction [iv] has or after a numeral: less is the usual form here, with fewer quite marginal; this construction is widely seen in supermarkets, with the fast checkout labelled eight items or less and the like.'

      They converge on the conclusions of Quirk et al only for the final example:

      'Finally in [v] the comparative occurs directly with a count plural: both forms are found, but less is subject to quite strong prescriptive disapproval., so that fewer is widely preferred in formal style, and by many speaker in informal style too.'

      They give a historical footnote. Apparently around 1500 moe was used as the comparative of many in contrast with more as the comparative of much. But less and fewer were not in contrast. Fewer then came to be stigmatised, indeed quite rare, before count nouns

      ' is only within the last generation that it has become frequent. The current revival seems inexorable, given the strong pressure of analogy with more.'

    2. I've looked up less and fewer in the even more recent Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English.

      Nothing on our controversy, but some interesting statistics.

      Less is a pretty rare word. In the corpora (corpuses) of CONVERSATION and FICTION it occurs less than 100 times per million words. In NEWS and ACADEMIC texts it's a little more frequent at 200 times per million.

      Fewer appears less that 100 times per million in all four registers.

      • This is despite the fact that a few is more common in all corpora, while a little is barely more common than fewer, with a frequency of over 200 per million in FICTION alone.

    3. Chaaoo6, the Cambridge Grammar has soared in price from expensive to exorbitant, but I urge you to go out and buy the inexpensive The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. You may have some disagreements, but you'll be stimulated, hugely entertained, and in the end (hopefully) persuaded.

      I feel like a vandal cutting bits from his sparkling discussion of less and fewer. But, sadly, it's a bit too long to quote in full...

      Now you might think that if more can be used with both count and mass nouns, so can less. But it doesn't work that way: you may have less gravel, but most writers agree that you can have only fewer pebbles, not less pebbles. This is a reasonable distinction, but purists have extended it with a vengeance. ... [EXAMPLES] ...
      By this logic, liquor stores should refuse to sell beer to customers who are fewer than twenty-one years old, law-abiding motorists should drive at fewer than seventy miles abhor, and the poverty line should be defined by those who earn fewer than eleven thousand five hundred dollars a year. And when you master this distinction, well, that's one fewer thing for you to worry about.
      What's going on? As many linguists have pointed out, the purists have botched the less-fewer distinction. It is certainly true that less is clumsy when applied to the plurals of count nouns for discrete items: fewer pebbles really does sound better than less pebbles. But it's not true that less is forbidden to apply to count nouns across the board. ...
      Like many dubious rules of usage, the less-fewer distinction has a smidgen of validity as a pointer of style. In cases where less and fewer are both available to a writer, such as Less/fewer than twenty of the students voted, the word fewer is the better choice in classic style because it enhances vividness and concreteness. But that does not mean that less is a grammatical error.

    4. I've just taken delivery of English Grammar, Your Questions Answered by Michael McCarthy. He tackles things briskly and sensibly

      This one that purists get vexed about. The conventional rule is that less is for nouns we normally do not use in the plural.

      [He outlines the purist rule.]

      However, this is a rule that is observed more in the breach than the observance, and everywhere you're likely to hear and see less people, less times, less emails - in fact less of just about everything. Supermarket express checkouts have been known to change their signs from Five items or less to Five items or fewer, probably after protests from purists, but only grammarian's equivalent of King Cnut would try to turn back the tide on this one.

    5. The Pedant column in the Times last Saturday (11th March) is in complete agreement with you - I would expand on his argument, but the recycling bin has gone!

    6. Would those who insist on or fewer also use at fewest in circumstances I suspect most would use at least? E.g.:

      You need at least 50 points to qualify.
      At least three-quarters of the members must attend for quorum.
      At least ten of the pupils excelled themselves.
      It's best to use at least a dozen eggs.

      Another countable/uncountable distinction which seems to have been lost is with number/amount (of). It's quite normal these days to hear sentences such as:

      The amount of cars on our roads is increasing exponentially

      where some, I think, might insist it should be the number of cars.

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    8. Zouk, this reminds me of as distinction made in passing by the big Quirk Grammar and more prominently by Pam Peters in the Cambridge Dictionary of English Grammar. She refers to her own Cambridge Guide to English usage — a book I'd be happy to own, but for Cambridge's recent over-pricing policy.

      To get to the point, Peters boils the less/fewer problem down to

      LESS vs. FEWER as determiner
      — e.g. fewer/less dollars in your pocket

      LESS vs. FEWER as pronoun
      — e.g. fewer/less than ten dollars, ten dollars or fewer/less

      Usage data [reference to her Guide] shows that LESS is is found seven times more often than FEWER as a pronoun.

      Your at fewest, at least are adverbial expressions in which fewest, least are pronouns .

      Now what inhibits clear discussion for most people is the the term determiner has not been widely accepted in everyday grammar terminology.

      What less than, or less, at least and amount have in common is that they are not determiners.

    9. I'm not familiar with the term "determiner" in grammar, but I haven't looked at a grammar textbook probably since I TEFLed a bit, over 30 years ago. I think I understand it.

      "Amount" was part of a quite different question. Do you agree that there has been a movement from "number of" [countable noun] to "amount of" [do.], or is that something that either you haven't noticed or hasn't happened (except in my imagination).?

    10. Number and amount are nouns, but they fit in a grammatical pattern with PAUCAL pronouns and determiners

      fewer than.......................less than
      or fewer...........................or less
      at least

      There is a grammatical rule:

      The expressions in the left hand column cannot combine with a singular non-count noun form.

      So the rule for number is not 'a quite different question' from the rule for fewer.

      For expressions in the right hand column, there is no grammatical rule. There's a pseudo grammatical prescriptive rule. And there are stylistic guidelines based on native-speaker preference. There are two of these

      1. Less and least may be dispreferred when used as determiners.

      2. Less and least when used as pronouns are often accepted, or indeed preferred — as is the noun amount.

      I'm not sure that this preference for amount represents a change. Nor am I entirely sure that it's a widely-shared preference. I only know that I was surprised and puzzled to hear Jenni Murray complain about the expression amount of people.

      Thinking about it, it's complicated by the question of what other words are attached to number or amount.

      We can say a number of cups, but do we speak of an amount of tea? And how about an amount of cups? Predictably, we can't say *a number of tea.

      But add a SIZE/QUANTITY word and it becomes clearer: a small number of cups and a small amount of tea are both fine. A small amount of cups doesn't sound too bad to me, but I'm open to persuasion. As usual *a small number of tea is out of the question.

      As for the term DETERMINER, it captures a generalisation where we would otherwise have to say article or demonstrative or possessive preceding a noun — and even then the list is too short.

      Some rules of English grammar demand a determiner in certain constrictions — even if it's the meaningless a(n). Other rules identify the position of added words around a noun — e.g. ADJECTIVE after the determiner, both or all before the determiner, NUMBERS between the determiner and the adjective.

    11. There are other uses of few/little, fewer/less/, fewest/least. I think they bear out the generalisation that there's a grammar rule for determiners, but not for anything else.

      a few of....................a little of
      fewer of...................less of
      the fewest of...........the least of

      These are straightforward. A genuine grammatical rule forbids *a few of tea, *fewer of tea, *the least of tea.

      An extra rule excludes *a little of cups, but otherwise less and least are grammatical with plural forms — however stigmatised or dispreferred they may be on stylistic grounds

      one less
      a lot fewer.....................a lot less
      ten cups fewer..............ten cups less
      ten dollars fewer...........ten dollars less

      There's no common agreed term for the function of fewer etc here. The simplest choice is to call then ADVERBS, but that's not entirely satisfactory. Whatever we call them, they're not determiners.

      Again, the general rule is that expressions in the left-hand column can't combine with singular non-count noun forms.

      The stylistic rules for the right-hand column words are a bit different. Ten dollars less and one cup less are not just slightly preferred, but very much preferred over ten dollars fewer and one cup fewer.

      There's also the possibility of using less and least the usual type of ADVERB — the type used as an element in a CLAUSE.

      [In one cup less, the word less is an element in the NOUN PHRASE — the self-contained grammatical unit centred around the noun form cup.]

      Examples with 'normal' adverbs:
      do it less
      do it least
      when you least expect it

      We never use fewest or fewest as this type of adverb.

    12. "I was surprised and puzzled to hear Jenni Murray complain about the expression amount of people."

      Ah! So she's noticed it too! I never listen to Women's Hour as I would miss Popmaster on the other side.

      "do we speak of an amount of tea?"

      E.g.,I can imagine someone saying "The amount of tea drunk in Britain is falling, while the amount of coffee consumed is increasing". It's hard to see how else to say that, unless you submit slavishly to the Normans and use quantity (see what I did there?).

      Also, the answer to "Why is a mouse when it spins?" is never, ever "The higher the less".

      There are many people now saying "There is many people", too. Is that an American import, I wonder, or just a development?

    13. I finally got round to looking it up in the Cambridge Grammar. Their terminology is sometimes not very beguiling, but the headings for this are unusually awful, viz

      (a) Number-transparent quantificational nouns

      These are nouns like:
      i. lot, plenty
      ii. lots, bags, heaps, loads, oodles, stacks
      iii. remainder, rest
      iv. number, couple

      These vary according to whether or not they
      • accept determiners e.g a lot, the remainder
      • are followed by of or of the
      • precede singular or plural noun forms, or both

      What distinguishes number and couple is
      • they must have a determiner, usually a
      • may be followed by either of or of the
      • precede only plural noun forms
      a number of the protesters but NOT *a number of the money
      a couple of quid but NOT *a couple of dosh

      Number differs from couple in that we can use the plural numbers. When we speak of married couple, we're not quantifying the people in a marriage. But we don't say couples of sausages.

      (b) Non-count quantificational nouns selecting a singular oblique
      [The curious term oblique refers to the noun form that they precede.]

      These are nouns like
      • deal, bit, smidgen
      • amount, quantity

      In BrE deal requires an adjective e.g. a great deal.

      All speakers require a singular noun after the first three
      (a great deal/a bit/a smidgen of improvement but NOT *a great deal/a bit/a smidgen of improvements)

      For amount and quantity, they report divided usage
      Some allow a large amount/quantity of stamps while some find it ungrammatical. They do not observe any change in the number of speakers who find it acceptable — though you may be right in detecting one.

      Personally, I've always accepted a large amount/quantity of stamps, so I'm not qualified to judge whether there's been a change.

      For the sake of completeness, the third heading is

      (c) Non-count quantificational nouns selecting a plural oblique

      These are nouns like dozens, scores, tens, hundreds, thousands and so on up.

      • They are followed by of — unlike the similar a dozen, ten, a hundred etc which can be followed by a bare noun.
      dozens of spiders BUT a dozen spiders

      However, of is found (twice) in e.g. tens of thousands of stars.

      • They precede only plural noun forms:
      dozens of errors but NOT *dozens of work

    14. And finally I got round to the OED.

      The entry for amount gives equal weight to

      The sum total to which anything mounts up or reaches:
      a in quantity
      b in number

      The quotes are nearly all from the nineteenth century. The earliest for
      amount of NOUN
      1837 A. Alison Hist. Europe VI. l. 714 Fame had magnified the amount of the forces.
      1852 J. R. McCulloch Treat. Taxation ii. i. 156 A greater amount of revenue.

    15. Cambridge:

      "lots, bags, heaps, loads, oodles, stacks"

      Not forgetting sh**loads *

      "couple ... may be followed by either of or of the

      Does "may" only condition the two alternatives, do you think, or also allow for omission? As has, I believe, been noted alsewhere in these pages, Americans often (always?) say, e.g. "a couple points". I haven't noticed this seeping into BrE but I'll wager it wiil, if only because it's shorter. Perhaps Americans also omit of from other quantificational phrases (thousands books?)?

      "The curious term oblique refers to the noun form that they precede."

      And what is intended by that term?

      "In BrE deal requires an adjective e.g. a great deal"

      I think I've heard it without, though not used it so.

      "Some allow a large amount/quantity of stamps while some find it ungrammatical"

      I don't say I've never used amount like that, colloquially, but it always jars slightly when I hear it in a formal context such as news broadcasts, a sensation which I seem to notice more often now.

      "A dozen of spiders" is a usage I've often heard (and you, presumably, even more often) from non-native speakers.


      I don't think there's necessarily a sense of things "mounting up" in the modern usage of amount we're discussing. E.g. "The amount of tea he drinks is phenomenal" simply seems to refer to the quantity pure and simple.

      *shedloads. What did you think?

    16. Does "may" only condition the two alternatives, do you think, or also allow for omission?

      The former, I think. AmE a couple points seems to be not commonly enough accepted to be acknowledged. But they do allow for AmE a deal of ....

      The OED is a historical work. They start with the original sense, which is based on the idea of something — arithmetical calculation, I believe — mounting up. The early quotations appear to be from school or college textbooks.

      At one time, amount was a technical term applied to loans. It meant the total of the principle and the interest.

      They do list a further sense which seems closer to your understanding.

      3. A quantity or sum viewed as a total.

      Note the use of the word sum.

  23. My professional background is in informatics/computer science rather than language, grammar, linguistics and so on, so my interest in the latter is merely that of a amateur rather than that of someone with any professional expertise. Nonetheless, I do feel that my informatics background offers me an insight into the key difference between "fewer pebbles" and "fewer/less than twenty-one years old, fewer/less than seventy miles abhor, and fewer/less than eleven thousand five hundred dollars per annum. As I see it, the key differences is that pebbles (like cabbages, pears, and items) are digital, whilst age, speed and income are analogue. For me ('though I have never seen the suggestion in print), "fewer" is required whenever the topic under discussion is digital (i.e., discrete, Diophantine) whilst "less" is perfectly acceptable (and to be preferred) when the topic is analogue (can take a non-integral value).

    By the way, although Google believes I am "Chaa006", I am really "Philip Taylor", and am perfectly happy to be addressed as such here.

    1. That is extremely interesting, Mr Taylor! I wonder how much actual usage of "less" and "fewer" we'd find to be following the digital/analogue distinction rather than the countable/uncountable one if we examined it.

    2. Philip

      an insight into the key difference between "fewer pebbles" and "fewer/less than twenty-one years old, fewer/less than seventy miles an hour, and fewer/less than eleven thousand five hundred dollars per annum.

      But five items of shopping is conceptually much closer to five dollars than it is to five pebbles. It's the prescribed ration or allowance. Like age, speed and income , in Pinker's example, it's the benchmark for comparison.

      I missed out the bit where Pinker introduces the choice of pebbles and an easy-to-grasp contrast with gravel.

      But this isn't a physical real world difference. One can easily imagine a load of gravel made up of really small pebbles. It's a distinction made in English, which may not translate into another language.

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    4. David : "five items of shopping is conceptually much closer to five dollars than it is to five pebbles". I respectfully disagree -- one can have zero, one, two, ..., $n$ items of shopping, but one cannot have 1.5 items, or 2.32. But one can have 1.5 dollars (or pounds) or 2.32 (etc). Just as one can have zero, one, two, ..., $n$ pebbles but one cannot have an integral number of *gravels, since "gravel" does not take a plural form in -s and it would be unidiomatic to speak (or write) of $n$ gravel, although of course $n$ pieces of gravel is perfectly valid. But not $n.m$ ! Fewer pebbles, less gravel -- fewer count-noun, less non-count-noun -- fewer discrete entities, less analogue. An arbitrary rule, perhaps, but is it not arbitrary rules such as these that make English such a joy to read when well written and so distracting and so disturbing when they are ignored. Was it not one of the Fowlers who wrote (paraphrase) that the sole purpose of prose is to communicate meaning without ever distracting the reader from the meaning by an ill-chosen word, phrase or construction ?

    5. An arbitrary rule, perhaps, but is it not arbitrary rules such as these that make English such a joy to read when well written and so distracting and so disturbing when they are ignored.

      No it is not. Arbitrary rules such as these make language ugly and oppressive to read, and their absence is a joy.

      In any case, items on a supermarket belt are frequently divisible. Indeed, it's contentious whether two identical packages/bottles/fruits or whatever constitute one item or two.

      but one cannot have an integral number of *gravels, since "gravel" does not take a plural form in -s

      Not so. Like most non-count nouns, gravel can be used with a special count meaning. Different gravels had different characteristics.

    6. Philip, it seems to me that you may well have defined more precisely the actual underlying "rule" for which countable/uncountable is an approximation. I have to disagree with David Crosbie, and pleading special cases will not win the argument. (Some supermarket items may be divisible into integer numbers but not fractional ones; there are an integral number of types of gravel, but fewer than thirty (eg) and not 29.5.)

      I say "defined more precisely" because, although "N items or fewer" pleases me stylistically more than "N items or less", "Less than N items" sounds slightly better to me than "Fewer than N items". For me the rule is therefore underspecified. Maybe it is lacking a variable or two (for example, possibly "less" can be used with nouns that do not refer to specific objects, such as items, individuals, pairs); maybe it is a description of what happens often but not always (like "Red sky at night . . .") that has been wrongly generalised; or maybe usage is changing.

      For me this is actually one of the few useful "rules" for a good writing style: unlike Don't split infinitives; Don't start a sentence with a conjunction; Don't end a sentence with a preposition and so on, which are worth following only if your audience is prone to peevishness. And with all such "rules", a decent writer knows when to break them.

      I would explain why I put "rule" in scare quotes:
      • a descriptive linguistic "rule" describes how people use language, and if people do not comply it does not automatically follow that they are in some sense wrong;
      • a prescriptive "rule", however, is something to criticise people with, an immutable prescription to hit them over the head with for non-compliance because they are WRONG; and that kind of linguistic "rule" I cannot go along with.

      I hope that to you your rule is descriptive; however, from your posts I suspect it is prescriptive. It was reading Steven Pinker that began my conversion from pre- to de-, and I second David Crosbie's recommendation; even though Pinker is not infallible, he writes amazingly well and talks such good sense (most of the time) that he is a pleasure to read.

      A final thought: "There are fewer than 8,000 cheetahs left in the wild" seems to convey a more tangible threat than "There are less than 8,000 cheetahs left in the wild". I can say either (but would edit "less" to "fewer" in writing, but for style, not correctness).

    7. Keith

      Yes, you're saying what Pinker is saying: that fewer is sometimes a defensible stylistic choice, although never a mark of 'correctness'. I'll grant you that — with the proviso that Pinker makes: that it would be preferable in classic style, by which he means elegant written prose.

      Where I totally part company with you is in the stylistic pleasure you take in N items or fewer. I just can't stand it; it sets my teeth on edge. The Cambridge Grammar marks the construction as questionably acceptable and of marginal occurrence — two factors no doubt reinforcing and amplifying each other.

      You speak of a tangible threat. Pinker speaks of vividness and concreteness. These are considerations that operate within the mind; they are not elections of real-world considerations such as digitality. As a writer one may want to paint a picture of large numbers of cheetahs or pebbles. But nobody can conjure a vivid, concrete or tangible image of five items.


      they are not reflections of real-world considerations...

    9. David -- "An arbitrary rule, perhaps, but is it not arbitrary rules such as these that make English such a joy to read when well written and so distracting and so disturbing when they are ignored.

      No it is not. Arbitrary rules such as these make language ugly and oppressive to read, and their absence is a joy."

      I should, of course, have written "is it not the careful observation of (i.e., the careful adherence to) arbitrary rules such as these ...". However, I suspect that the re-cast will not change your position, and therefore we must agree to differ.

      Keith -- thank you for your kind words regarding my possible identification of "the actual underlying rule". As to whether "my" rule is descriptive or prescriptive, my gut instinct tells me that it is both -- it both describes how "less" and "fewer" are used in well-written prose, and prescribes how they should be used. As you have undoubtedly noted from the authorities whom I have cited, I feel little empathy with the modern tendency to descriptive linguistics -- my empathies lie very much with the earlier generation(s) of prescriptivists and even (dare I say it) with a proscriptive approach [1]. "Rules are for the guidance of the wise and the blind obedience of the foolish", but if we are to communicate effectively, with a maximum of precision and with the avoidance of any possible ambiguity, then rules we must have. Whether or not we choose to obey those rules (or even respect them) is, of course, an entirely personal choice.

      [1] My reference works stop at Quirk, but include Sweet, Onions, the Fowlers, Gower and Weseen. I once tried Crystal but felt that he and I had too little in common to make it worth the effort. It is probably not for nothing that my former Director called me a dinosaur on more than one occasion ☺

    10. David: "vividness" is exactly the word I couldn't find in the early hours. The point I was hoping to make was that if there is a descriptive "rule" that applies to discrete countable nouns then there may be a stylistic basis for it, reflecting what people (not everyone; needs qualifying) perceive as prose that is one or more of elegant, powerful, moving, or just well written.

      Philip: "rules we must have" On balance, yes, but only for guidance for those who may need it. But where are those rules to come from? Pedants laying down inviolate laws based on peeves and supported by cherry-picking from what they consider to be elegant prose (while ignoring the numerous counterexamples from widely admired writers), or professional linguists who carefully analyse language as it is and has been used and propose patterns that try to explain something of how language works? The former reminds me of the dogma of religion, together with the associated penalties for infractions; the latter of the scientific method, together with open minds that can embrace change. It will not suprise you that I am an atheist.

  24. I am not a native English speaker. I clearly remember being taught at school that in English, in headlines and titles, All Important Words Must Be Capitalized. I had no idea until now that this was an American rule and not done in the UK. I also don't remember now, after all these years, whether it's something I learned in my home country (being taught E. as a foreign language) or during my high school year in the US.

  25. I can't speak to the utility of the Cambridge Grammar, as I haven't the privilege of its ownership. But for AmE questions of usage, I default to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. For the Less-Fewer question, Mark Liberman of Language Log has scanned and posted their complete article, which is available here:

    In essence, it follows David Crosbie's position almost perfectly and points out that the currently "preferred" distinction was a creation out of whole cloth by an 18th century writer that was noted as his personal preference. Further, the said preference did not match earlier usage going at least as far back as the 9th century.

    I will end by simply saying that I'm not convinced that the supposed difference exists in the form that the "rule" specifies and will feel free to point and laugh at anyone who says that it does. 8-)

    1. Doug, I'm really impressed by this Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I must think seriously about buying a copy.

      The close similarity of treatment with the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is surely no co-incidence. The dictionary is listed in the bibliography of the grammar. Indeed, the Cambridge Grammar account reads like a re-writing of the Merriam-Webster in a different format, and with just a few minor tweaks.

      The Cambridge device of first bringing the patterns together in a lot of example sentence, followed by a paragraph of discussion works well in the books as a whole. Bear in mind that
      • it discusses a much wider range of grammatical analyses the a usage guide
      * it seeks to integrated them into a hierarchy of topics, as opposed to listing kw words in alphabetical order
      * it doesn't have a mission to assist the writer (although that may be a side-effect)
      • It relies on the quantitive data in corpora of texts, rather than the qualitative data of quotes from 'good writers'

      If you share my interest in grammar, it's a fabulous source. It must be said, though, that the Usage Dictionary is more readable. And look at these comparisons:

      Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage
      5.1 x 19 x 25.4 cm / 2 x 7.5 x 10 inches
      Price £19.99 / $29.95

      The Cambridge Grammar of the English language
      5.1 x 19 x 25.4 cm / 6.8 x 2.8 x 9.7 inches
      Price £206.00 / $294.00 (I paid considerably less when it first came out)


      I copied and pasted the wrong metric dimensions for the Cambridge Grammar. It's actually

      17.4 x 7.2 x 24.7 cm

      and weighs nearly 2½ kilos / 5½ pounds.

  26. I fear that latterly we have strayed more than a little from the raisons d'être of this forum, so I apologise for continuing this digression even further, but having slept on my original post concerning "digital" vs "analogue", I now feel that the mathematical terms "integral" and "real" are better in this context. One can have fewer 'things' if things can take only integral values, and less 'thing(s)' if thing(s) can take real values as well as integral. The reason for the optional "s" is to allow as valid both "less salary" and "less than £5 (five pounds)".

    1. I think I see what you're trying to do, Philip, but I can't accept the analogy, no matter what terminology you finally settle on.

      It's a question of how language maps onto the real world. Grammarians use the term reference (taken, I think, from philosophy).

      Take a heap of stone fragments small enough to compose something that can be scooped and poured. As long as we have that pourability in mind, we're likely to refer to that heap as gravel. But once we switch to considering individual stone fragments, we refer instead to a heap of pebbles.

      It's not a question of objective reality. It may not even be a question of perception. In many cases it's a question how we choose to perceive.

      As KeithD and Stevan Pinker observe, there's a particular stylistic effect when we choose to perceive a comparatively small collection of things as pebble-like. But as all the linguists we know of observe, English speakers often choose to perceive a comparatively small collection of entities — especially abstract entities used for measurement — as gravel-like. Exactly how often they make this choice varies from one grammatical construction to another.

      The point about five items or less is that it's the construction where English speakers are least likely to see pebbles. And yet it's the construction that there's been (apparently) the most fuss about.

      All of this is in complete contrast to the 'rule' for 'paucal comparative' quantification with a word like gravel. This is pure grammar; if the word is singular then no matter how you choose to perceive the entity it refers to, nevertheless you must say less. *Fewer gravel is not English; nobody would dream of saying it — unless, perhaps, they were a foreigner, a baby, or a drunk.

      There are times when we use a non-count noun

      — that is to say a noun which normally refers to an undivided abstraction like truth or an undivided aggregation like gravel

      while choosing to perceive an interchangeable example of a class.

      For example two teas may express
      • two servings of tea in a cafe
      * two types of tea at a tea auction

      In this case, we have to change the grammar of the noun to reflect how we choose to perceive the referent. In the case of comparatively paucal items, dollars, pebbles, we can change the quantifier, leaving the noun-form unchanged.

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    3. Philip is using an analogy. He is simply saying that there are some objects that can only be integer / whole numbers / discrete and other objects that can be real / fractional / continuous.

      The analogy is between distinctions in the real world and distinctions in grammar. Philip seeks to move from the homely can be counted/can't be counted dichotomy to a comparable dichotomy recognised in mathematics. My objection is to any real world dichotomy. The distinction lies in the brain — in the decision to regard or disregard the individuality of the entities referred to by a plural noun form.

      Yes, in the real world pebbles are integer. But that's because we choose to see them as integer and attach the name pebble. But we can just as easily choose to see the whole heap of stuff as [whatever the word is for 'not integer']. And we mark this by calling it gravel.

      You speak of choice as to the extent to which one accepts less in combination with plural noun forms. But contrast this with the acceptability of fewer gravel, fewer tea, fewer truth. There's no choice whatsoever. We're talking grammar now. If an infant or a foreigner or a computer translate app produces fewer gravel, it would not be unhelpful to say that it's not 'correct'. But that term is wholly inapplicable to forms like less pebbles which are open to choice.

  27. At the risk of extending this digression yet again ... When you (David) write "The point about five items or less is that it's the construction where English speakers are least likely to see pebbles", can you explain how you arrive at that conclusion ? When a shopper encounters such a sign (and assuming that he or she does not wish to queue for some time, only to be told "Sorry, this aisle is for five items or fewer", then he or she will need to check (if uncertain) how many items there are in his/her basket. And the answer will be a small positive integer. There is no possibility whatsoever that the basket will contain a fractional number of items; the number must, by definition, be integral. So I am afraid that it is unclear to me why you write (and believe) that "five items or less is [...] the construction where English speakers are least likely to see pebbles" -- the "gravel" analogy just won't wash with the cashier, who is likely to respond to an argument such as "well, it looks less [sic] than five items to me" with a rather blunt "Can't you count ? You've got eight items, so you'll have to use one of the normal checkouts, not a fast-track one".

    1. It's not a conclusion. It's a reported fact.

      Linguists have compiled vast corpora of texts and analysed them. The objective truth is that phrases five items or fewer is only marginally attested. We don't see pebbles we see gravel.

      Yes in the real world there are five discrete entities, but it has been statistically found that English speakers choose to perceive the aggregate as gravel — presumably because it's a measure used as a criterion.

      You don't agree with this overwhelming majority of speakers as measured by linguists. That proves nothing; you're perfectly entitled to your view. And it's no use saying that the vast majority of English speakers shouldn't avoid the X NOUNS or fewer constructions. Language isn't like that. Expressions mean what the language speaking-community accept them to mean.

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    3. Indeed, mine too. Besides which, there are occasions when neither "less" nor "fewer" works - there was, some years ago, a brand of toothpaste which advertised itself as being "for less fillings". I, grammar pedant that I am, would have preferred them to have written "for fewer fillings", but then I began to wonder less than what? Fewer than what? Neither works properly in this case.

      And we have strayed a very long way from slavish submission, and I'm quite surprised Lynne hasn't called for a halt before now!

    4. It's not impossible that copy-writers are wary of the word fewer, which can carry the negative connotations illustrated in this cartoon, which Steven Pinker used to enliven his treatment.

      To the target group of consumers — to which you don't seem to belong, Annabel — less fillings is presumably meant to convey 'less than in the past when you weren't using our wonderful toothpaste'.

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    6. Keith, your figures for less + noun ~ fewer + noun are relevant to what Merriam-Webster and the Cambridge Grammar found for one of six constructions. To recap, these are exemplified in the Cambridge Grammar thus:

      i She left less then ten minutes ago.
      ii Less/Fewer than thirty of the students had voted.
      iii He made no less/fewer than fifteen mistakes.
      iv You pass if you make ten mistakes or less/?fewer.
      v He took less/*fewer pains to convince us than I'd expected.
      vi He made fewer/less mistakes than the others.

      So your figures in (1), (2) and (3) relate only to constructions (v) and (vi).

      I'll break off here and leave your (5) for the next posting...

    7. Your figures in (5) actually bear out what Merriam-Webster and Cambridge with their much larger corpora found. They fall into two groups

      1 corresponding to Cambridge example (iv)

      or less is hugely less frequent than or fewer. This is the string that distinguishes construction (iv). Merriam-Webster report

      Less is the usual choice in the "twenty-five word or less" construction

      The Cambridge Grammar goes further

      'Construction [iv] has or after a numeral: less is the usual form here, with fewer quite marginal; this construction is widely seen in supermarkets, with the fast checkout labelled eight items or less and the like.'

      My choice or words 'overwhelming majority is simply a rephrasing of 'with fewer quite marginal'

      2 relating to Cambridge examples (i), (ii) and (iii)

      Merriam Webster

      In present-day written usage, less is as or more likely to appear in a number of common constructions. [EXAMPLES] Fewer can be used in the same constructions, but it appears less often then less. .. The no less than construction [criticised in 1770] tends still to have less more often than fewer.

      The Cambridge Grammar comments

      Both [i] and [ii] have than + numeral. In [i] ten minutes expresses an amount of time rather than a number of individual units, and in such cases fewer is virtually impossible — just as few would be in a comparison of equality: She left as little/*few as ten minutes ago. Similarly with We paid less than thirty dollars for it; She's less than forty years old; We were going at less than ten miles an hour.

      [Yes , I realise that these examples are uncontentious, but I reproduce them as they're relevant to the total occurrence you found of less than ~ fewer than.]

      In [ii] we are concerned with countable individuals and little cannot be used in a comparison of equality (*as little as thirty of the students); nevertheless, for inequality less is more common than fewer in this construction. The same applies with percentages: Less/Fewer than 30% of the students had voted. Construction [iii] has the comparative form following no: thought interpretation is a count plural, less is here again more common than fewer.

      To summarise

      less is more common than fewer after than

      less is much, much more common than fewer after or

    8. I understand this to be a blog that treats a reasonably serious subject in a fairly lighthearted manner. I come here because I enjoy it here. I am invariably informed and often entertained, and I generally enjoy the company of the commenters. But when my experience of the comments becomes akin to a degree-level Spanish Inquisition all the pleasure evaporates. I appreciate your knowledge and your intellectual rigour, David, and sympathise with your unflagging desire to get things spot on, but I can no longer tolerate being beaten into the tiny minority corner with weighty tomes I have never come across, simply because I expressed views that I believe I took pains to make clear were my personal opinions rather than dogma (at least until annoyance set in).

      I have unchecked the "Notify me" box on this thread. The floor is yours. Enjoy, for I can no longer do so. Life is too short, and Zelda calls on the Wii U.

      Lynne, I will not feel remotely upset should you decide to delete any or all of my digressive posts; indeed, how would I find out?

    9. This is just a brief revisit to say goodbye. Unfortunately I find that my enjoyment at being here has evaporated. I should have known better than to try to play with the big boys, but now I have been put in my place and it's not a very nice place. I go with a deal of sadness at leaving this great community, but staying would also make me unhappy. So I'm off.

      Thank you, Lynne. I love what you are doing here.

  28. I apologise most sincerely both for digressing and for boring readers; I will write no more on this topic.

  29. A case of the lesser of two evils?

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  30. Sigh. I promised to write no more on this topic, and I am about to break that promise ... Keith, when you write "But I at least (Philip differs on this point) claim no more than a freedom to choose on the basis of subjective style-as-I-perceive-it", I do not for one second seek to deny your freedom to choose, any more than I seek to deny your freedom to (for example) exceed 70 mph on the motorway. I simply argue that in both cases you are breaking a rule/law, but your right to do so is inalienable.

    1. As noted above, the "rule/law" was an idiosyncratic preference of an 18th century writer.

      I have a whole variety, perhaps even a gallimaufry, of idiosyncratic preferences. Should I choose to write them down and claim them to be universal, it would be a bit presumptuous of me to suggest that anyone who disregards them is "breaking a rule/law", even though such a person would be doing exactly that by strict construction.

      Alternatively, here is my rule: "Supermarket signs indicating a limit on number of items must use the construction 'X Items or Less'."

      You are free to break that rule/law, of course. 8-)

    2. Yep, I understand and understood your position, Philip. But I claim freedom of choice informed to a degree by a descriptive rule of style, whereas you allow me only my freedom to break a prescriptive rule that I do not countenance and that you yourself would not break. That relatively small point is where we differ, and I for one am more than content to leave it at that.

    3. Haha! Great thread! Lynne won't interfere, because she's a non-prescriptive blogger. It's what it is. Who mentioned the real world? At my default supemarket some people just walk through with a trolleyful and the checkout staff don't try and police the "8(not 5 where I shop!) items or a smaller integral number of same" policy. Why should they? It's "above their paygrade".

      I like the integral hypothesis and will adopt it. I'm not persuaded by David's counter-arguments.

      Enough! Fewer are more!

    4. Seriously, though, I think the answer to the heap paradox is that it becomes a heap of gravel when you can no longer simply glance down and know how many pebbles there are, without counting. I believe this is about seven for most people, but that some gifted people can immediately enumerate many more pebbles before they merge into a fractionable heap. (The pebbles, not the people). I'm not making that a rule.

    5. The heap paradox is a real thing but it is not related to usage of language. It arises from a combination of two ideas. First, that a single pebble is not a heap of gravel. Second, that if you remove a single pebble from a heap of gravel, what remains is still a heap.

      I don't see its relevance here. Especially as we may on the one hand say "a large amount of gravel is...", and on the other hand "a few pebbles are...".

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  32. Here is a recent usage of slavish I have just come across in the wild, from's twitter feed:

    "'Kong: Skull Island' does what so many reboots manage: honoring a classic without being slavish about it". I think "many" is a transcription error for "few", as below.

    The full article explains:

    "On paper, Kong: Skull Island has all the Kong requisites: a giant chest-pounding ape; a bunch of headstrong dopes who refuse to act like rational adults when confronted with said ape; a blonde. But beyond the broad strokes, Skull Island is very much its own movie, one that has much in common with Apocalypse Now as it does with Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong or any other entry in the Kong canon. Packed with videogame references and Nixon gags, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ movie does what so few reboots manage: honoring a classic without being slavish about it."

  33. I have had a request from a long-time reader to close the comments for this blog post because the material has gone so far from the topic at hand and is clearly upsetting to some.

    I do have a comments policy (there are links to it on the 'about' and 'contact' pages), which asks people to keep comments to the topic of the blog post and to behave nicely. The former request has clearly not been followed here. The latter is often hard to judge. My strategy is to read things as if the participants are trying to be cooperative and respectful. I delete anything I notice as name-calling, but other than that >99% of comments go up.

    Early in the comments-policy era, I policed more. I simply do not have the time or energy to do that now, and so I have left off-topic conversations to themselves. My policy for the unmoderated posts (i.e. less than two weeks old) is that I won't take part in off-topic discussions, but that it is more trouble than it's worth to police them and possibly a bit mean-spirited to do so. I'm stricter on older posts, since I have to moderate new comments. I must admit for this post, as soon as I've seen that a comment is about less/fewer, I've just stopped reading it.

    But I think we've come to the point where I have to step in.

    So, I am asking for a cease and desist (as has been attempted a few times by a few commenters) on the less/fewer topic. There are other online sites that are good for such conversations, so if you'd like to pursue it further, I'd suggest seeking those out.

    I'm of two minds about whether to delete the off-topic comments. It would make the blog neater and would make the post a better model for how I want comments to work here. But on the other hand, I can see that a lot of thought and work has gone into many of them. I'm happy to take advice on that.

    I'm not going to close comments. I want people who want to comment on the actual blog post to be free to do so. The comments will shift to 'moderated' in a couple of days, but in the meantime I will be more vigilant about the comments on this post.

    1. ...and that didn't work. Still getting comments unrelated to the post.

    2. And so I thought I'd try deleting the irrelevant discussion, figuring/reckoning that (a) that if I deleted a comment, the replies to that comment would go with it, and (b) that it could be undone (since there's the distinction between delete/delete permanently on Blogger).

      Turns out I was wrong on both counts, so now the first of the less/fewer comments is now empty, with all of the responses still intact and no record of the comment in my blogger interface. I am guessing that the delete/delete permanently distinction is not relevant when it's the blog administrator doing the deleting.

      I am going to leave it as it is (for now, I really can't afford the time on this), but will be moderating further comments. Please, let that topic go or take it to another forum.

  34. Hi Lynn! First of all, let me thank you for your very interesting blog. I can spend hours reading your posts. I am not an native English speaker, and your posts encourage my language databace to evolve :-)

    Slavish fear and slavish devotion. There is some kind of connotation, emotions behind these words. Which is strongest?

    1. Hi Hanna. Since 'fear' and 'devotion' are very different things for me, I have a hard time judging one or the other as 'strongest'.

    2. can't one be devoted because of fear?

  35. I wouldn't use it that way. I'd mostly use it for loyalty stemming from love.


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