Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Less Than Zero

The Times has been running a feature called 'Grammar for Grown-Ups', written by John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor at UCL. As we would expect it generates the usual battles between the traditional pedantics who believe passionately in the validity of randomly imposed and sometimes archaic rules (such as the one about split infinitives) and the more liberal modern linguists who are happy for 'rules' to be determined by usage, rather than the other way round.

I think I know most of the so-called rules and, to avoid confrontation with my copy editor, I try to stick to them in formal writing – even though I know in my heart of hearts that many of them are unjustified and unnecessarily rigid. And, if I do ever pick people up about dangling participles or hypercorrection of 'you and me', then it is done (usually) tongue in cheek. You can now challenge me about starting a sentence with the word 'And'!

But I must take issue with John Sutherland about his claim that if you follow the rule about the distinction between 'fewer' and 'less' then the title of Bert Easton Ellis's book, Less Than Zero, should be Fewer Than Zero.

His argument is that zero is a 'counting number' and therefore 'fewer' is correct. He's wrong.

Zero can be a counting number describing an empty set, but it can also be an ordinal number describing a position; it is an integer separating negative integers from positive integers on  various measurement scales; and it is a real number representing a unique point on the number line. Only when comparing an empty set with another set would the word 'fewer' be associated with zero. [A has zero marbles, B has 7 marbles, A has fewer than B.]

But if we are referring to a number as an abstract entity, not as an adjective attached to a set of things, then it is a singular noun. So we can form sentences about, say, 7, that begin '7 is ...'. Examples would be: 7 is greater than 5; 7 is a prime number; 7 is a factor of 21; and so on. So, we would correctly say, 7 is less than 9. Likewise, zero is less than 7. Or, indeed, 'negative three is less than zero'.

We always talk, correctly, about negative numbers being numbers less than zero. They are not cardinal numbers that describe sets of things, so it is incorrect to use the word 'fewer' when making statements about negative numbers. 'Negative three is fewer than zero' sounds bizarre: it seems to imply that there is a set of 'negative three things' that is being compared with an empty set. In none of the contexts in which negative numbers describe actual things (temperatures, bank balances, heights above sea level, and so on) does it make any sense to use 'fewer'. Would anyone say 'my bank balance is fewer than zero'?

Finally, we should note that 'fewer' can only be applied to whole numbers (because they can describe sets).  It cannot be used with non-whole numbers. Is there a meaningful sentence that begins '0.2 is fewer than ...'. So, a number 'less than zero' could be the number –0.2. Once again, this number is never going to be described as 'fewer than zero'.

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