Is it few or less people?

I have to read a lot of essays and theses recently and notice that I am getting a obsessive about the ‘correct’ use of language. I don’t like myself for it as I consider myself as flexible and tolerant about the way that language is used. More specifically, I think language rules should be descriptive rather than prescriptive, i.e. they should describe how the language is used rather than how it is used. This means that if I was a rich man is normal (rather than the subjunctive if I were), and less peopleis OK now that fewer is falling into disuse. There is always power bound up with language, and over zealous interpretation of language rules is an effective way of those with cultural power to discount the voices of some people – for if people cannot express themselves correctly why should we listen to them? [1].

So it is no good being too pedantic but following rules is important for it is really quite disruptive when a writer breaks the rules. Inconsistency can be a problem, for example the switching of US and English spelling such as practice / practise and program / programme or numbers written as both digits (10) and in full (ten) at different points in a text.  But it is also the breaking of the rules in the first place. For example I know academic colleagues who are quite OK about contractions in a text (isn’t, couldn’t, won’t) but for me I find  contractions in academic writing holds me up – I suddenly notice the form of what is being said rather than the idea itself. And of course being stopped in your tracks is frustrating.  I realise, of course, that if we all stuck rigidly to  expectations around language then nothing would change and that would be wrong. After all, it does not really matter in terms of meaning whether you contract is not or could not and, going further, would it really matter if we got rid of apostrophes completely as we could understand the meaning from context. But for the moment I want to follow the rules.

Typos are disruptive too but they a different matter. They are not about wanting to change the rules but just things you missed. They are inevitable [2]. For example with a colleague I have just finished writing a book about education research, as writers we checked each other’s work and later my partner kindly read the whole thing.  The book was then proof read formally by the publisher, yet when it came back there were still a number of typos and for that matter one ‘howler’. These have been amended but there will be others we missed even after all this combined checking. I try not to worry as most people will miss them too and will be forgiving but it is distressing how typos leap of the page when you finally read a finished text. The good thing about Blogs is that mistakes are forgiven, they can also be rectified.

[1] One of the interventions I recall reading came from Labov (1972) Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence writing about value judgements on the way that inner-city children in USA speak. This is archived in several places including  

[online] https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/95sep/ets/labo.htm

[2] A recent blog Academic Oscura makes me feel better [online] http://www.academiaobscura.com/oops/

3 thoughts on “Is it few or less people?

  1. Commendably brief – but I wouldn’t (ha ha!) expect anything less – although my personal bugbear is repetition of the same word too soon after its first use as in: “I don’t like myself for it as I consider myself as flexible and tolerant about the way that language is used.” There is also a contraction in there too!

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