Language Changes

When I was a kid, I and many of my peers had the difference between “may” and “can” drilled into us.

“Can I have another cookie?” I’d ask.

“Yes you can…” would be the reply,  inspiring my excitement until the questioning note registered, the cue for me to recognize my error and correct it.

“Oh! May I have a cookie?” even with the correction, my chances were fifty/fifty, but I learned the correct English. Even today, carelessly using “can” can elicit a joking response requiring the use of “may” from people I know. I expect even this to die out soon, and the use of “may” to make a polite request will disappear except in very formal, somewhat antiquated language.

Lately I’ve been yelling at newscasters and others (as long as they are on tv and can’t hear me) who should know better when they use the words “less” or “amount” incorrectly, (as I cling to a slightly outdated usage).

“Less” is now often used when “fewer” is the “correct” choice. Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, explains the difference well. “Less” is used when you have an amount, a chunk that can’t be counted as individual pieces. “Fewer” is what you use when you can count what is being referred to. Fewer people read paper books these day, which means less paper is used for publishing books. You can count the number of people, but paper is not countable (except when it’s in pages or packages, etc.).

The number of bowls and the amount of cereal
The number of bowls and the amount of cereal

The conflation of “number” and “amount” is a related change in language usage. Last night, when the newscaster said “The amount of people” I startled my husband by yelling “Number! You slovenly grammarian!” or something similar but less polite. People are countable, so “number” is the correct word to use. “Amount”, like “less”, is for uncountable stuff. Fewer people are eating less chocolate now that it is so cheap. (I wish.)(Although, one would say, “Fewer people are eating fewer chocolate bars!” because, of course, chocolate bars are countable, though the number of chocolate bars diminishes rapidly in our house!)

Despite my twitches and occasional yells over these grammatical “errors” I acknowledge that no one misunderstands what is meant when “less” is used instead of “fewer” or “amount” instead of “number”.  I know that language is constantly changing; we don’t talk or write the way Shakespeare or Jane Austen did. Language evolves over time. The most important aspect of language use is that the meaning is clear.

Almost always, within their contexts, these changes have no impact on meaning. So fewer people use “fewer” and “number”, and more use “less” and “amount”. Although this change sometimes annoys me, it’s simply grammar snobbery on my part, resisting a change in language that is already widespread. The amount of people using less grammatical rules are still communicating efficiently.

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