Button Pushers

“Where’s it at?”
“I could care less.”
“Less people.”

The first two sentences are or contain linguistic items that drive people crazy. I’ve heard any number of people complain about them. They are equal-opportunity annoyances. The third phrase is one that only a few people seem to be bothered by anymore, and I’ve already addressed why in this very sentence. We’ll get to that.

The at in the first phrase is actually a preposition that lends the sentence more precision. It’s not correct grammar in the traditional sense, but it does serve a purpose, albeit a redundant one. “At” is used to denote a specific location in time or space. No one cringes when “at” is used in a sentence. “She’s at home/school/the mall/a friend’s house.” “The party is at 10:00” The preposition serves to locate the item in time or space. Why is it cringe-worthy in a question? Is it because of the drilling we’ve all gotten about not ending a sentence in a preposition? Hasn’t that already been debunked? We have come to view the question ending in “at” as uneducated and that is what we are railing against. See? I just ended that sentence with a preposition, for just as Churchill, whether he said it or not, there are some things up with which I will not put.

There has already been much discussion on “I could care less” and about how it is infuriatingly ungrammatical or illogical. If we are looking at syntax only, of course it does not mean the same thing as its respected counterpart, “I couldn’t care less.” However, looking at syntax alone isn’t enough, as Chomsky proved in his famous example of syntax sans semantics: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Language isn’t used in a vacuum. Language is used in context, during life. It is an imperfect system used by imperfect users, which means it is subject to our whims, our creativity, and our ignorance. Would it bother you less if you heard someone say “As if I could care less!” along with appropriate tone and gestures to convey sarcasm? No? Perhaps it is the omission of the obvious cues that makes us think that the person is simply ignorant of the “correct” phrase, and this bothers us.

The third phrase represents a valid linguistic distinction that is still valuable and recognized, but for some reason, the grammatical difference between less/fewer is going away. Only a few people realize these days that “people” is a countable noun and if we want to say that the number of people who understand that has decreased, we would say fewer people understand why it’s wrong to say less people.

Once again, this leads me to the conclusion that it is not the phrase itself that offends, but the ignorance behind it. Each phrase implies ignorance of something to each person. For me, the first two don’t offend because it seems to me that they are learned as entire chunks, a la Michael Lewis, and therefore are simply mis-assigned a meaning. The third is a perfectly valid and current generative rule of English grammar that is being ignored or improperly learned. That’s why it bothers me.

So, doesn’t this tell me as much about myself as it may about the person uttering the ungrammatical statement? Our language reveals much about us, both intentionally and unintentionally, and not just what we say, but what we hear and how we hear it.

4 thoughts on “Button Pushers

  1. I find my reaction to a grammatical error differs depending on whether it is spoken or written. I could see writing “it is that against which we are railing,” but saying it out loud seems forced. Further, there are times when I have taken the care in an email to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition and I wonder what the people I work with think of the seemingly-unnatural turn of phrase.

    • I can definitely see that. Writing is definitely more formal in most situations. The reason that prepositions at the end of sentences don’t really bother me, even in writing, is because it is ultimately an arbitrary stylistic guideline rather than a productive grammatical process. Of course, it bothers me when stylistic rules are broken for no good cause, but for some reason, the preposition rule has never been one of my pet peeves. I would be much more bothered by something like using too many fragments, even for effect (because then the effect is either lost or annoying!).

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