Saturday, June 26, 2010

Greater Less Fewer More Thans--More or Less

As a technical writer and grammarian, I run across all sorts of grammatical anomalies. The type I've posted about today pertains to apparently comparative terms "greater than", "less than", and "fewer than". Also belonging to the topic is "more than", more or less.

A particular mathisfun page typifies sites that show mathematical terms and symbols "greater than" (">") and "less than" ("<"). To me, these terms are not exactly antonymous. To me, "great" implies more a subjective word than "more". Thus, if I were advocating appropriate terms, I would say "more" or "less". "Greatness", the noun related to the adjective forms of "great", connotes positiveness, something subjective, maybe emotional. "More than" seems more suitable to indicate comparative quantity than "greater than". With this train of thought, it would seem the antonymous term to "greater than" could be "awfuller than".

This brings me to the point about "less" vs. "fewer". I believe the default term in mathematics courses—"less than"—has overshadowed the correct usage of "fewer than" in non-mathematical-course situations. The problem in the context of grammar is applying "less than" to integer quantities. Put another way, if something can be counted as an integer, the reference term should be "fewer than", not "less than". The prominent example is the sign at express lanes in a grocery store. When first established, the expression tended to be "[n] or less items". Over the years, I had noticed some stores replacing "less" with "fewer".

These days, I glance only to see the number for restrictions. Weird Al, a song parodist who coincidentally has a bachelor's degree in architecture, is strong in both left-brainedness and right-brainedness. His grammar lesson YouTube video strikes a blow for grammatical correctness where he modifies a sign that says "15 ITEMS OR LESS". He attaches "FEWER" on top of "LESS".

The other day, I encountered a YouTube video that highlights my snit about "less than"—even more so than usual. At 1:19, the following lyrics appear: "Point being, in short, less annoyances and more awesomeness." Wow. Anyway, I think I understand why mathematicians retain "less than", as the number specified can be a non-integer. As a grammarian, I'd prefer mathematicians and similar-discipline professionals be more cognizant of the difference between "less than" and "fewer than".

As my article has "more or less" in the title, I should mention it in the article itself, though the segueing might be somewhat odd. An example of using the phrase "more or less" could be with regard to purchasing an article of clothing that was suitable for style, color, fabric, and price. I can't say my selection jumped out as a must-have item. The price was so-so but not great. It was a decent buy, more or less. :-)


Cullen L. said...

AS an electrical engineer, and a programmer, I find nothing wrong with the grammarian in you. In fact I enjoy it very much. The only thing I take issue with in the article is the supposition that mathematicians and engineers do not have cognizance of grammar. Indeed, any engineering degree requires courses in technical writing. In my experience being an engineer requires one to be both a grammarian and a mathematician. Just think of how much writing is involved in any job in today's world.

The programmer in me instantly conjures up many examples where greater than and less than should be replaced by further than and closer than. Especially when it comes to operator overloading, the myriad choices becomes quite apparent.

I think the most important thing in writing is that the message is communicated; whether grammatically correct or not. Many scholars today believe that the English spoken/written by Britons will be so different than that of Americans within the next 200 years that grammar seems a most unimportant thing.

With all of that said, I love the article and the cynic in me hopes that you write more like it. As an engineer I appreciate anyone who dives into their field, even it means changing the words we colloquially use when reading programs.

Peace, Love, and Music

whilldtkwriter said...

Thanks for your extensive comments, Cullen. Your website is a huge example of someone very talented in the right brain AND left brain--a rarity. My comment about mathematicians and similar-discipline professionals maybe stems from a combination of
* interactions with such an individual
* my inference that the term "less than" pervasiveness comes from imprinting from institutional mathematics teachings.

Good writing seems undervalued, retaining less cachet with time. As someone who has worked with lots of engineers both stateside and non-US, I have often wrangled content for accuracy, completeness, and correct sequencing--excising material not pertinent to the topic.

You mentioned "further than" and "closer than". I myself often need to look up "further" vs. "farther".

I hope some of my other articles also pique your interest. I would be interested in seeing more of your comments.

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