Friday, May 9, 2008

Less practice errors

With all my pontification, I may be a prescriptivist after all. Otherwise, what explains the feeling of fingernails on a chalkboard when I read this in a report: "The more competent and/or less stressed new RNs felt, the less practice errors they reported making." As I read it, I immediately changed it to "fewer," even though I know that, grammatically, it can be either. In fact we've discussed this on Wordcraft a number of times, and I've agreed that it can be "fewer" or "less."

Why then does it irritate me so? Is it my prescriptivist background? I used to recommend Strunk and White to my students, after all. Can you give up old ways? I thought so, but I am not so sure. I'd not change it if it were my student's paper (like I used to), but I'd want to! What is it, I wonder? I wonder if other supposed descriptivists feel the same way. Strange.


goofy said...

That doesn't make you a prescriptivist. Maybe it just means your dialect has different determiner constraints.

Now if you wrote a book about it, complaining how this use of "less" is causing society to go to hell, that would be different. :)

Shoshana said...

I agree that it doesn't make you a prescriptivist. In fact, I'm not entirely sure what you mean when you use that term to describe yourself.

I cannot agree that fewer and less are interchangeable. Fewer holds the implication of change, the continuing decline in errors. As the RNs get better they will make fewer errors, not just once but over time. Less is rooted in time, it is a "now" descriptor if you will.decreasing number of errors.

Kalleh said...

Yes, I suppose you're right, goofy.

Shoshana, we talk about prescriptivism a lot on Wordcraft. To me it means that one thinks grammar rules are black or white, similar to Strunk and White's cookbook approach to writing. That is, never end a sentence with a preposition; never start a sentence with a conjunction; strict comma and semicolon rules; etc. When someone errs, then you berate him backwards and forwards.

I do wonder, though, if "fewer" and "less" really should be interchangeable. You make a good point, Shoshana. I do think there is an important difference.

Shoshana said...

There are circumstances where the two words are interchangeable. For example, I think it is quite acceptable to say "there are fewer birds here than there were yesterday," or "there are less birds here than there were yesterday."

In your example, however, there was an implication of an on-going process, and I would contend that only fewer fits a description of a gradually diminishing amount.