For various reasons — including, no doubt, sins I committed in previous lifetimes — I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube lately. I wonder if it’s fundamentally changed my temperament: a year or so ago I would’ve thought it was ridiculous to spend time watching other people go to theme parks or play video games. Now, I still think it’s completely ridiculous, but it’s also quite pleasant.
It also means that I end up watching a lot of video essays and end up forming really strong opinions about inconsequential topics. (The whole world of “video responses” used to be bafflingly alien to me, but now I kind of get why you’d want to set up a camera and lighting to explain exactly how someone else was wrong).
Other times, though, they hit closer to home. They violate everything that we civilized people hold to be good and true, such as Tom Scott’s outrageous claim that the difference between “less” and “fewer” is purely pedantic.
For the record: I do get the irony in writing an essay to explain how I’m not actually pedantic. But this one especially bugs me because:
- I’m constantly hearing it called “pedantic”
- Without fail, everyone who calls it “pedantic” goes on to hypocritically complain about something even more pedantic
- Technically, a list should always contain at least three items
I’ve heard the complaint from no fewer than a dozen people over the years, and from no less than Stephen Fry himself. Scott claims that it’s a prescriptive distinction; it’s an assertion of how people should speak instead of an observation of how they actually speak. The idea is supposedly that for those of us who think it sounds wrong enough to be jarring, we’re making the distinction just so that we can feel superior, even though the meaning is perfectly clear either way.
But there is an actual distinction between the two, even though Scott’s video calls the distinction “dodgy” and relegates it to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it footnote. “Fewer” is used for things you can count; “less” is used for more generalized or indistinct things or concepts. Or in other words, “fewer” relates to “number,” while “less” relates to “amount.” (And yeah, it’s jarring to me when people say stuff like “a smaller amount of people,” too).
Everyone can decide for herself whether it’s a big enough distinction to care about, but it’d be disingenuous to say that there’s no distinction. I’m definitely not an authority in linguistics, but I do know that the Japanese language has different counting words for cylindrical objects, flat objects, abstract concepts, and so on. The video that made me discover Tom Scott’s channel in the first place was this one about “language features” such as that, and the importance of preserving endangered languages, since they sometimes have concepts and ways of thinking of and expressing concepts that don’t exist in other languages.
I agree with that part. It’s why, for one example, I started writing “everyone can decide for herself” after years of dismissing it as arbitrary political correctness. Since the “feature” that English lacks is a truly gender-neutral singular pronoun, using “she” is no more or less correct than using “he.” (It is more correct than “they,” because if we’re going to stop caring about subject-verb agreement then we might as well just go back to banging rocks together and grunting). But the whole argument is that language is about more than just being “correct;” it’s about expressiveness, and choosing “he” as the arbitrary default expresses assumptions about what’s normal and what’s an exception. It’s rarely intentional expression, but it’s still there, whether or not you choose to spell it “womyn.”
Obviously, “can I count it?” is a much less charged and much less important question than “can I systematically oppress it?” but it’s still a concept that we can express in English. It seems hypocritical to spend an entire video defending all the nuances and connotations that languages can express, and then spend another video insisting that two words in English are interchangeable and anyone who says otherwise is a pompous know-it-all.
One of my favorite podcasters is Helen Zaltzman, of The Allusionist and Answer Me This. She’s made the assertion that the difference between “less” and “fewer” is purely pedantic. But she’s also said several times that her pet peeve is when people say “and I” instead of “and me,” and vice-versa; as in, “The rings of power were given to Galadriel and I.” It sounds jarring to me, too, but ultimately that is a purely prescriptive distinction. Whether a word’s the subject or object of a sentence or clause is purely a grammatical rule, and it doesn’t change the meaning or make it any more difficult to understand.
Above anything else, though, I think the key thing to realize is that I need to watch less YouTube. Or if you prefer, I need to watch fewer video essays. If nothing else, it’d save me the cognitive dissonance of watching this video of the Nerdwriter bitching about how selfies and pictures of food are ruining Instagram by turning it into a gross platform for personal branding (an allegation I take personally!), and then seeing his Instagram feed filled with photos of himself eating food in Venice with his girlfriend. Maybe the key thing to realize is that people writing blog posts and making videos online need to be a hell of a lot less judgmental.