What is a ‘bête noire’ anyway?

About ten years ago, I read Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. I enjoyed it enough that I still remember quite a few details and would probably read it again if I had a copy of it in front of me. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, is a Peter Pan sort of character: he owns a record store, has commitment issues, and spends most of his time compiling his Top Five lists. Top Five Most Memorable Break-Ups, Top Five Subtitled Movies, Top Five Elvis Costello Films…you get the idea.

They changed his name (Rob Gordon) and location (Chicago), but the movie version of High Fidelity starring John Cusack is actually quite good (Image courtesy of Zap 2 It)

I tried to pick a few Top Five items since reading that book, and it’s much harder than one might think. Perhaps I was choosing the wrong categories, ones for which I don’t have very clear criteria for determining what’s good and what’s bad. Even when I am more certain of what I do or do like, it’s an agonizing task to try to whittle a list down to only five items.

Theoretical category: Five Books to Have When Stranded on a Deserted Island. Impossible! How can I chose only five? Should I chose the five longest books I know and haven’t read yet so they’ll provide more material for long, solitary days? But what if I hate them? But if I chose tried and true (read and loved?) books, won’t I get sick of them if that’s all I had to read for 20 or more years? Do I want to taint my memory of A Memorable Feast or The Hobbit?

I think I was in way over my head starting with books. It’s just too hard for me to go right into the tough categories without getting some practice with some more unambiguous decisions. What best to start with than language? I certainly have many pet peeves (that very term being one of them, which is why I chose ‘bête noire’ for my list), but there are only a handful that are bad enough to make into a worst-of-the-worst list.

So here’s my attempt at my first list: Top Five Language Bêtes Noires. Today, you get Number Five, and then I’ll present the rest on Mondays through the month of June.

Number Five: Fewer/Less. This is the issue that actually got me started on the idea of a Top Five. As I approach the two-year anniversary of this little blog o’ mine, I thought I might revisit a few of the topics I wrote about during that first blogging summer. In Button Pushers, I described three grammatical issues that people often complain about:

  1. Where’s it at?
  2. I could care less
  3. There are less people.

The first two didn’t bother me at all. As I explained in August of 2009, the first two examples are only a little bit incorrect, and their slight deviation from standard English grammar is due to the influence of other languages (Latin in the case of the first example; Yiddish in the case of the second example). The third example, though, annoys me so much that I developed a new nervous tic that appears whenever I see an example of it.

The third sentence does indeed break a real live English grammar rule, which is one concerning mass/count nouns and the modifiers that are used with the different classes of nouns.  In English, we don’t have grammatical gender and we don’t have plural adjectives (we don’t say ‘reds cars’ for example), but we do have count/non-count (mass) nouns. So do a large number of the world’s languages. These classifications of nouns – of any words – help us manage the tremendous task of searching for words , putting them together in a meaningful way, communicating our intentions reliably and consistently. Not all languages may have count/mass nouns, or gendered nouns, but they all have some system of classifying both the world and the words they use to refer to that world. It’s just how we roll.

But back to counting – or not counting - nouns in English. If a noun is countable, then it refers to discreet items that we can, obviously enough, count. If we don’t use a specific number (three crows sitting on a fence), we can pair it with words like the number of, how many, a few, fewer, the fewest. For example, blog is a countable noun. We can count how many blogs there are, talk about the number of blogs that are started or abandoned each month, and how there are fewer domain names available to newcomers.

A noun, however, is sometimes uncountable. Most of these nouns refer to physical substances that have no real shape or discreet form that can be counted (water, air, gasoline); material that is comprised of individual items so small and numerous that it becomes realistically uncountable (sand, salt, hair – well, unless one strand has detached from someone’s head and is now lying in your soup); or abstract nouns (happiness, loyalty, life). The words that are paired with these mass nouns are different from those of countable nouns. We now ask how much water is in the half-full or half-empty glass, or what is the amount of money in the safe. And some people feel they need to drink less coffee, rather than fewer coffee.

The mistake, then, of less people is pairing a mass modifier with a countable noun. It rarely happens in the other direction; you don’t hear, “fewer sand on the beach.” People are defaulting into making less a universal modifier and thus, ignoring the classifications of those nouns.

Does this really make a difference? As mentioned above, noun classification is a feature of language and of human cognition. Does blurring the lines between the way we mark these classifications mean that we are losing the distinction? Are we simply changing the way we mark the categories? Or does the change go deeper? Wiese and Pinango believe that “this partition [between mass and count nouns] reveals a system that is based on both syntactic features and conceptual features, and present experimental evidence suggesting that the discrimination of the two kinds of features has a psychological reality.”

Also, Kihm, in work related to noun class and gender, says of classification, that “a linguistic phenomenon so rooted in such a basic faculty of mind is hardly likely to be uninteresting to linguists who view language as a mental organ whose design is supposed to be driven by the need to optimally interface with cognitive faculties (see Chomsky 1998).”

In other words, language and cognition are linked, and if the brain classifies, then so does language. Is the reverse true? If the language classifications change, does the cognition? Are we changing our perception of reality?

Grrrr..... (Image courtesy of Maniacal Rage)

Admittedly, this sounds a bit fatalistic for me. I know that in a broad sense, this conflation of less/fewer isn’t one of the Four Horsemen of the English Language Apocalypse (even if amount/number are also getting confused with each other). I know that languages change. But I can’t help it; I hate this particular change. Every time I hear a commercial for a diet food with less calories, or listen to the TBS announcer saying “More movie, less commercials”, or go to the express line for 15 items and less, I cringe and moan in despair. And I also can’t help but wonder about how linguistic changes that are seemingly borne out of ignorance – not creativity or necessity – may affect our very thinking and perceptions of our world.

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7 thoughts on “What is a ‘bête noire’ anyway?

  1. I think I’m careful enough with language that I wouldn’t make that error myself – certainly not with the phrase “less people.” However, I never really thought about the linguistic laziness of the TBS tagline or the sign above the express line and now that you’ve pointed it out I’m not sure I’ll be able to shake the irritation.

    Much like once someone pointed out the redundancy of the phrases “ATM machine” and “rate of speed,” they became nails on a blackboard to me.

    On a separate but related topic, I’m about 25 hours into this summer’s project, learning French (partially inspired by you, my dear). At the moment, I’m listening to CDs on my long commute. However, as I’m getting to the finer points of French grammar, including the gender classification of genderless nouns (WTF?!) I’m starting to realize I simply must start engaging the section of my brain stimulated by actually taking notes on what I’m learning and mapping out the grammatical rules to which I’ve been exposed. (Why yes, I do dislike dangling participles.)

    I actually had a dream recently that I was meeting, in person, with the teacher on the CD’s. I said to him that I was struggling with the added layers of complexity in the more recent lessons… then he told me it was possible I just wasn’t smart enough to learn French. Not sure what that says about my subconscious, but I woke up and thought to myself, “If I can master the finer points of this amalgam of language we call English, SURELY I can master French conjugation and use of articles!”

    We shall see.

    • What, you mean we don’t use a PIN number in an ATM machine? ;) A friend of mine who used to live in California used to laugh at “The La Brea Tar Pits”. It was like saying “The the tar tar pits”.

      Good for you for taking on French! (How cool to be a partial inspiration :) ) The audio is good, but you’re right – at some point you’ll need pen and paper and the ability to concentrate more fully without endangering your life (please don’t endanger your life!). Grammatical gender is always fun. And by ‘fun’, I mean frustrating. I remember a David Sedaris essay in which he describes always asking for two of something in France so he could avoid learning the gender of nouns. This all reminds me that I’m going to be in France in a few weeks and should probably brush up on whatever I still remember of my French!

      I think you should have that dream again but this time, smack the instructor upside the head.

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