I ended the last essay with a challenge, and since then, I’ve been perplexed. I asked if fewer or less were \"correct\" in this advertisement: \"An exceptional diamond of two carats, or more, is so rare that fewer/less than one percent of women will ever own one.\" I had to consult the authorities to find an answer I thought would satisfy you.
The grammarians say less refers to quantity, "not as much," and fewer refers to number, "not as many." It seems correct, then, to say, "a shower uses less water than a bath, so take fewer baths and more showers." (Questions of English, ed. Marshall and McDonald) Strunk and White offer this: "His troubles are less than mine" means "His troubles are not so great as mine." "His troubles are fewer than mine" means "His troubles are not so numerous as mine." (The Elements of Style) It seems simple enough, but as Bill Bryson tells us, "probably no other pair of words causes more problems, and with less justification, than less and fewer." (Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words.)
This week I heard a reporter on BBC World Service say, "less players are signing contracts." Oh no, that can’t be right. Mr. Bryson, you’re right, but the problems are not coming, they have arrived. The battle line has been drawn between the dictates of grammarians and the flexible vitality of everyday speakers. According to the authorities, "less" was used incorrectly, but no matter how incorrect it is, it is used frequently, and by established personalities, whose use sanctions it. The famous Professor Fowler would probably shake his head and include it in his list of "sturdy indefensibles."
We might try to devise a defense, but I fear it would fail, because "less," in its incorrect use, is sturdily established. The frustration in the academic tower probably resembles the frustration when data was accepted as a singular, and datum relegated to an endangered species by many publications, including The New Yorker. Also "sturdy" and "indefensible" is what has happened to agenda. I rarely hear agendum, and the plural, agenda, is now offered as agendas. Lovers of Latin may cringe, but these changes are here to stay.
I don’t like it, but then I’m one of the gray-haired guardians. I have to remember that change simply proves that the language is alive. Dead languages do not change, except to become deader. Eventually, I will have to embrace William Safire’s goddess, Norma Loquendi. She is Common Speech itself, the ideal of democratic standards. By following this goddess, I must "resist cheap change" and maintain standards, but when "the everyday voice of the native speaker" challenges the order over a period of time, this everyday voice "changes the order and raises a new Standard" I must now defend. (In Love with Norma Loquendi.)
Now, to the challenge: what did the advertisers want to say? If they wanted to talk about percentages, they would have said, "less than one percent." If they wanted to talk about the number of women, they would have used "fewer." And since they were selling diamonds to women and not to percentages, they said "so rare that fewer than one percent of women will ever own one." Is that right or wrong, or a "sturdy indefensible"?
Oddělení studia jazyků ÚJČ AV ČR