National Grammar Day 2023

Martha Brockenbrough started this particular grammar ball rolling back in 2008. Because the date, March 4, is also rendered March 4th in certain circumstances, it is not only a date but an imperative with a homophone for “fourth”: March forth! It was (and presumably still is) her intention that people fond of grammar would take the day to celebrate the joys of “good grammar” (as she called it) and share those joys with others.

My take on “good grammar” might not be yours. Or Martha’s.

I’m not a prescriptivist. I don’t get the vapors when I see a “less than 10 items” sign at a checkout. Some of my colleagues and I had a discussion about that very thing (the “rule,” not the vapors) just this past week. Turns out that it’s not so much a rule as a guideline, rather like the pirates’ code of which Captain Barbossa spoke so fondly. We were hard-pressed to find precisely when this rule entered the common knowledge; it seems that some fellow named Baker opined on it in 1770, and within a century or so his opinion had been hardened into a so-called rule by others quoting him. (You can find this information in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, 1997.)

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Butterfield, ed.; fourth edition, 2015) says this about the controversy:

“The starting point is that according to the rule, infringement of which causes a violent, Pavlovian reaction among the grammatically pure in heart, the comparative adjective fewer is used with count nouns . . . or with collective nouns. By contrast, less is used with noncount nouns.”

But wait! There’s more. In the third section we find the following.

“The injunction against less in front of plural count nouns seems to have been launched by one grammarian in 1770, related specifically to less in front of numbers, and was tentative rather than dogmatic. Since then it has developed into a rather more extreme and expansive ban.”

So, not only was it not intended as a rule from the start, it was a guideline/opinion about a specific usage of the word. But people being people, they love their binaries. Yes/no, right/wrong. Now, what was never wrong to start with gives some folks the vapors.

Note that this usage is more common in spoken English than in written, and that it’s wholly idiomatic. We can trace it back to Alfred the Great circa AD 888 (first recorded—written—use).

This is also likely why, when I dug for it, I found no trace of such a rule in either the Cambridge or Oxford grammars.

All of this to say: There are many “good grammars.” I wouldn’t recommend going out and purposely riling folks up over idiomatic usage, but I don’t feel we need to rein it in, either.

March forth, readers, and speak and write English as you do!

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