Grammar for Grownups sounds like the kind of book I’d love. This morning, authors Katherine Fry and Rowena Kirton were guests on BBC Breakfast to talk about it. And the discussion left the show’s hosts confused and blubbering.
Host Charlie Stayt kicked things off by mentioning a recent news story, which reported that in the UK there are “10,000 less places for university students this year.” He then asked the authors: “Really simple rules, please. Explain the difference between less and fewer.”
Kirton answered: “Fewer is a specific number — less is more abstract. So: ‘Less is more.'”
Me: D’oh. Not helpful.
Charlie: “If you can count something, it should be fewer?”
Use fewer if you’re referring to people or things in the plural (e.g. houses, newspapers, dogs, students, children). For example:
People these days are buying fewer newspapers.
Fewer students are opting to study science-related subjects.
Fewer than thirty children each year develop the disease.
Use less when you’re referring to something that can’t be counted or doesn’t have a plural (e.g. money, air, time, music, rain). For example:
It’s a better job but they pay you less money.
People want to spend less time in traffic jams.
Ironically, when I’m on tour, I listen to less music.
Then I calmed down. The authors were literally in the spotlight, on national television, and had almost certainly been told to speak in pithy soundbites. They got better — they explained that the entire point of grammar and punctuation and spelling is clarity. I wanted to hug them.
The hosts then moved on to viewers’ questions.
Host Louise Minchin: “Should of, or should have?”
The authors nearly shrieked and tore their garments in horror. “Should have!”
Louise: “Lots of people writing to us, very upset about Americanisms. What do you think about Americanisms?”
Kirton: “It’s fine in America.”
Charlie: “What Americanisms would you recommend never using?”
Kirton: “Ooh. Hmm. ‘Go get a coffee.’ You’d say, ‘Go and get me a coffee.'”
Charlie: “Here’s something that has slipped in… people want to talk about an issue, they’ll say, ‘I would like to speak to that.’ That’s slipped in in American politics quite a bit. ‘Speak to an issue.’ Because that’s wrong. That can’t be right.”
Kirton: “Yes. Of course. It’s not. It’s not.”
At this point I was baffled. But the discussion then moved onto grammar’s killing field.
Louise: “Apostrophes. Too difficult to explain?”
I must now admit that I think apostrophes are doomed. They’re not too difficult to explain, but faced with them, people panic. And so they throw apostrophes at words as if they were beads at a Mardi Gras parade. I realized this years ago, when relatives sent my parents a beautiful plaque for the front door. My dad was an English professor, so the relatives thought they had to — had to! — get it right. the plaque read: “The Gardiner’s.”
But back to the breakfast show. What’s an apostrophe used for?
Kirton: “It’s basically a possessive or a contraction.”
Charlie: “So that’s all it is.”
Kirton gave an example of the confusion that surrounds the use of apostrophes. From another recent newspaper article: “‘Mark Duggan, whose death sparked last year’s riots…'” she said. “How would you spell the word ‘whose’?”
Both hosts squirmed. Their panic was palpable.
Louise: “Oh, I don’t know.”
Louise: “No, no! It’s possessive, so it’s ‘who’s’ death. It was his death.”
Kirton: “Sorry, w-h-o-‘s would mean ‘who is.'”
Louise: “That’s why I’m not a script editor.”
At the very least.
They then talked about writing, and the evolution of language. Louise: “You talked about the Mark Duggan thing, which is obviously a very serious story. And you change the meaning don’t you, by the way you write things. Which is very important.”
Kirton: “Yes. The reader doesn’t know what you mean.”
Louise: “And that makes it very important.”
Or, to put it another way: Hell, yes.
Rowena Kirton ended the interview by saying, “Our main point about the book is clarity and comprehension and making yourself understood. Clear communication.”