Grammar: Less And Weary

newsroomAs the newspaper business enters its final stage of life and newsrooms with clattering typewriters, copy boys, and ink-stained editors with green eye shades become a distant memory so copy editing and grammar seem to be disappearing with them. The sports pages are perhaps the most grievous offenders but sloppy writing and editing seems to be a hallmark of late modern journalism.

In this one story about my Nebraska Cornhuskers, Foxsports.com writer J. P. Scott confuses “weary” and “wary.” He writes,

Others, especially heading 2013, are weary of how an inexperienced defense could derail any hopes of a major bowl bid.

To be sure, Nebraska fans did grow weary of the frequently mediocre blackshirt defense last year but opponents cannot yet be weary of them—unless they are watching a lot of film of last season. Rather, Scott intended to write “wary.” To be weary is to be tired, exhausted, or worn out. To be wary is to be cautious or concerned. I’m not picking on Scott. I see this mistake occurring with increasing frequency.

Another mistake Scott makes in this story is to confuse less with fewer. He writes,

Despite Martinez’s propensity for turnovers, the fact remains he is a fourth-year starter in a college football world where that is almost unheard of. His grasp of the Nebraska offense combined with the playmakers that return around him make it easy to predict a repeat of last year’s offensive showing — potentially with less turnovers.

Turnovers, especially by the Cornhusker offense, are much to be regretted and avoided. Even though they occurred in great numbers last season (they and poor special teams play seem to be a mark of Pelini’s teams) they do not come in quantities. Water comes in quantities but turnovers are particular. Thus, a team has more success when they have fewer turnovers.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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18 comments

  1. Hello Dr Clark! There are a lot of errors in the British
    newspaper website Telegraph. No day passes by without typos or
    wrong words being used by junior writers. English is a second
    language for me, but even I can spot them. Thank you for your blog.
    I enjoy reading it.

    • Actually, the fact that English is your second language may actually be an advantage to you. A couple of years ago, I was talking to a Kenyan Presbyterian minister who was staying in Northern Ireland while doing an MTh. When I informed him that we stopped teaching grammar in schools, on the pretext that we spoke English and so did not need to know how the language worked, he nearly died of shock that people could be so stupid. Indeed, most of us in the UK are basically illiterate (yes, that includes us who have done graduate studies and who hold academic posts at major universities).

      One obvious practical disadvantage of grammatical illiteracy is that it is a major barrier to learning a language. This is going to create serious problems for the church as we will soon have a generation of pastors that do not know Greek and Hebrew. As Martin Luther warned us, the effects of this upon exegesis and theology will be dire.

      Cheers,

      Daniel

  2. Even in the Wall St. Journal. Theology set the pace for imprecision. We were on the cutting edge & didn’t know it!

  3. As a vehicle’s speed accelerates, the structural integrity is eventually compromised.

  4. Dr Clark said on “The Abiding Validity of the Creational Law in Exhaustive Detail” post that …

    “I’ve shown how changing our worship has affected our theology, piety, and practice.”

    VERY IMPORTANT POINT, INDEED – and which should be highlighted time and time again.

    A LESSON that many so-called “conservative”/ “confessional” Reformed (and Lutheran and Anglican) churches today do not heed ……..

  5. Perhaps you should say that water comes in continuous values (actually, it depends on your perspective) and turnvovers are quantized or come only in whole numbers.

    • Yes, that’s the point. If one is counting in units then one says “fewer”; otherwise, one says “less”. You would not usually speak of three waters, so you say “less water”. However, if you were somehow using “water” as a countable noun, in a context in which “three waters” made sense, then in that context you could say “fewer waters”.

      It gets subtle when people start talking about time, length or mass. Three hours or fewer, or three hours or less? It all depends on the context…

  6. Its good that you pointed out the decline of good grammar today. Journalism is one of the worse offenders. It’s errors are getting worse every year.

  7. Oops. Sorry for the clumsy word repetition. Last sentence should read, “It’s errors are so bad, and they don’t even try and correct them.”

  8. reformedcov, I hope you were “speaking with” a Kenyan Presbyterian minister instead of “talking to” him. The former is much more conducive to civil conversation than the latter.

  9. Less vs. fewer is more about taste than proper usage. Using “less” with countable things goes back over 1000 years in educated English, and few pedants seem to have a problem with “we need at least ten bags of mulch” when consistency would seem to require the use of the word “fewest.”

    • Scott,

      So you think it is correct to say less fouls rather than fewer fouls? There may be instances where they are synonymous but there are also differences. For example the OED gives the usage “no less a person than.” One could not properly write “no fewer a person than.” In this usage there is a clear semantic difference between “fewer” and “less.”

      The difference seems to be between individual quantities and a mass quantity or a collective singular.

      One of the examples the OED gives is a quote from Spurgeon (!): “The less said about her the better.” Here, the word less refers to a mass quantity of words not to a series or particulars.

      I am happy to be corrected, however. If you could point me to some documentation I would be happy to check it out.

      What kinds of grammatical distinctions do you regard as not being pedantic?

  10. Dr. Clark,

    I do believe that there is a difference between less and fewer. It is not correct to use fewer with a mass noun, for example. However, less is often used with countable nouns, especially in the construction “x or less.” In your example, I think “fewer fouls” should be preferred (and I would say “fewer turnovers” as well).

    A good article can be found here:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003775.html

    The author is way more descriptivist than me, but I think he is correct about the history of the usage and the origins of the rule in question.

    As far as pedantry, I believe that any language prescription needs to be well rooted in actual educated language. It is not enough to say “this is what my English teacher taught me” or to point to a rule in a grammar book. Rules that have been imported into English from Latin by some Victorian grammarian are the worst offenders. It is a little frustrating to demonstrate widespread exceptions to the rule and be told “well they are educated, they are allowed to break the rules.” How do you know what is a proper rule with this sort of special pleading?

    Just to tie some recent threads together, does a Christian worldview require a prescriptivist approach to language?

    • Scott,

      1. English was influenced by Latin long before the Victorian period! English spelling and grammar were systematized in the 19th century and they probably were influenced by Latin. Intellectual standards have declined considerably since then. I don’t see why we should side with the decline.

      2. Exceptions to rules are challenging. My general rule is that one should know what the rule is, how it works, and should break it knowingly, to good effect. This is not usually what I see.

      3. re: WV and language. Not obviously.

  11. Dr. Clark,

    English was certainly influenced by Latin, especially via Norman French, but this was not mediated by some authority deciding that English really ought to be more like Latin. I don’t see how letting English be English is accepting declining standards.

    I understand that your perspective is likely formed by reading your students’ papers. You have my sympathy!

    –Scott

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