*Less* flags?

One BBC correspondent picked up on Tuesday night the Education Minister’s call for “less flags” – not because of its political content, but rather its linguistic.

I have in past posts made the distinction between “wrong” grammar on one hand and “non-standard” (but dialectally correct) grammar on the other. This “error” isn’t clear cut – it falls in between.

Put simply, a football team could be said to have “more chance” (i.e. a greater likelihood) on one hand, or “more chances” (i.e. a greater number of opportunities) on the other. However, in reverse it would be said to have “less chance” but “fewer chances”, at least in Standard English.

“Less” (and “least”) derives from “little” – meaning originally “more little” (its universal use now for comparison means that something which actually is “more little” is usually said to be “smaller” – an issue of usage rather than grammar). “Fewer” derives more obviously from “few”, meaning a “low number” (thus a “lower number”).

Such semantic shifts are not usual. “Little” is usually replaced in Scotland and Ireland with “wee”, but “wee” was in fact originally a noun, meaning a “short time” (hence “Bide-a-wee” is a common name for a B&B, such as one just outside Strabane).

Is mixing “less” and “fewer” a serious error? Not really – if “more” does not need to be distinguished from “more”, then why distinguish “less” from “fewer”? Nevertheless, it is something the Education Minister should do less often and on fewer occasions. Maybe that’s a wee bit clearer…?


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