The English language has a dictionary full of words with meanings, but unless you are a word savant, it is easy to mistake, misuse, or error in using certain words.
Case in point is the recent Hall of Fame induction of Greg Maddux, one of the best pitchers in baseball history. The ungrammatical passage on the plaque that will be in the Hall for all to read throughout eternity or the apocalypse, whichever comes first, reads, “…3,000 strikeouts and less than 1,000 walks.”
Unless a few eagle-eyed word savants pointed it out I would think nothing of it. I understand what the passage means, it makes sense to me. However, the word “less” is incorrect. The correct word is “fewer.” Both words mean “not as many,” but the words are used in different contexts. Fewer should be used with countable items, like walks in the offending passage. It should read “fewer than 1,000 walks.” My book “Which Word When” says that “less” is to be used for plural numbers when they deal with distance and amounts.” The examples cited are “less than four miles” and “less than a hundred dollars.”
I understand the importance of using the correct word. When we use the right words in writing and speaking we are clearly understood-or at least have a better chance of it-but is pointing out the error by the Hall of Fame nitpicking? I think so.
The book I cited also adds this: “Despite all these rules-or perhaps because of them-many people use “less” when they should use “fewer” and vice versa and have been doing so for a thousand years. But they are still not interchangeable.”
I love the last sentence. After saying in essence, people have been using the wrong word for centuries, they throw in the reminder that it is still wrong. It is like the fact that everyone jaywalks from time to time, but a policeman stops you and tells you it is still wrong. Does it really mean anything?
Language is fluid, it changes, words take on different meanings. A few years ago there was no such word as “selfie” now it is being added to dictionaries. The word “gay” meant something different a few decades ago than it does today. I realize I am citing words, not grammar, and though I will try to use the correct word, be it “less’ or “fewer” I will not beat myself up if I get it wrong. I have been getting it wrong for a thousand years, yet I believe I have been understood, except by fewer than 100 English teachers.
I will not object to those who wish to purchase one of my e-novels and point out to me my grammatical errors. All of us need help, even the Hall of Fame.