Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Hats Falling Down

I heard a three-year-old today complain to his mother that his hat had falled down.  It was an epiphany.  Now I understand what drives the usage mavens and letter-writers to say things like “25 words or fewer.”

I once read an article on how children learn language.  First they copy what they hear and so say things like, “My hat fell down.”

Then they learn RULES.  They learn that the past tense is formed by adding “-ed.”   Simple.  Except English is not simple.  English is full of exceptions, and the so-called rules don’t begin to encompass it.

One year in school they taught us “i before e except after c,” but that rule is violated all the time, which made me scratch my head because in those days I liked to follow rules, and yet I knew how to spell “weigh” and “neighbour.”

A friend of mine one time recited an extended version of the rule, which said, “i before e except after c, or when sounded like a, as in neighbour and sleigh.”

But that still doesn’t account for “weird” and “seize” and I believe a lot of others.

Nowadays the language experts and those they have cowed into submission go around saying that you must use “fewer” with all countable nouns.  So you have to say “fewer books” (sounds natural), “fewer than three books” (sounds barely okay, but a bit prissy), “three books or fewer” (who would say that if they didn’t think they were supposed to?), and “one fewer book” (oh God no, save us).

They have forgotten that the English language is full of exceptions.  The rule, or really just a rule of thumb, was to use “fewer” with countable nouns EXCEPT when mentioning a specific number.  So standard English would be “less than three books,” “three books or less,” and of course “one less book.”

Now that I’ve read Moby Dick I have one less book to read on my list of classics.  But sigh … the three-year-olds have taken over, and they want us to read one fewer book.  Soon they will want us to say we falled down or runned away.  After all, the rule says to use “-ed” to form the past tense.  Every three-year-old knows that.  Sigh.

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