Monday, November 3, 2014

Nathan Heller on Steven Pinker

Nathan Heller writing about Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style :

It is difficult to shake the suspicion that Pinker’s list of “screwball” rules simply seeks to justify bad habits that certain people would rather not be bothered to unlearn. “Fewer” versus “less”? Do whatever sounds good, Pinker says, but maybe favor “fewer,” if you can, but not because “less” is wrong. Good luck!
I opened The Sense of Style in a bookstore this weekend and landed at the discussion of between you and I. Two pages to argue that it’s not really a mistake, followed by the observation that writers are “well advised” to avoid it. Good luck!

Related posts
McGrath on Pinker on Strunk and White
Pinker on Strunk and White

comments: 2

Daughter Number Three said...

I found the "between you and I" advice kind of strange, since it is clearly wrong in terms of agreement. The fewer/lesser thing bothers me less, personally, though since I learned the rule (at about age 45!) I have tried to speak and write it correctly.

Michael Leddy said...

Just looked for Pinker’s fewer/less in the Google Books, and it appears that he’s arguing with a straw man. Garner’s Modern American Usage, for instance, recommends “one less” and says that ”one fewer” “isn’t really an idiomatic possibility.” Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer also recommends “one less” and points out that less goes with matters of quantity. For instance: “Not many of these buildings are less [not fewer] than thirty years old.” I can’t imagine either writer finding fault with “10 Items or Less.”

Nor can I imagine many writers claiming, as Pinker does, that fewer is a better choice because it “enhances vividness and concreteness.” I’d think of the word as just making better sense in many contexts.