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Thread: Are numbers countable?

  1. #31
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    But, aren't all word usages manufactured? It seems to me that some distinctions are manufactured by the folk as a whole, while others are manufactured by individuals. I get the impulse to stand with the plebs; I come from a long line of hardcore socialists. But to me it doesn't really matter who made a tool, as long as the tool is useful. After all, we laud Shakespeare for his contributions to our language, and the wisdom of the masses can lead us astray. You cannot tell me English is better off without a plural "you".
    My point is that the "fewer/less" distinction isn't useful. It makes absolutely no difference to comprehension, which is why no-one in real life has ever cared about it.
    All that happened (consulting Burchfield at this point) is that back in 1770, one grammarian made a tentative suggestion that "few" might have a particular use when we're talking about a specific number of things. But that's all it ever takes for the prescriptive grammarians to go wild, and before you know it people are judging each other, based on whether or not they observe a completely useless distinction. The same applies to avoiding split infinitives, or using the subject pronoun after a linking verb, and an endless list of other stuff invented by prescriptive grammarians but never used by real people.
    I'd suggest that these are harmful rules that should be discarded, because they clutter up people's heads and make them anxious, and persuade them that grammar is pointless and has nothing to do with clear communication.

    Grant Hutchison

  2. #32
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    I suppose as a lifelong writer I will always have some prescriptive instincts. My feeling is, if it has a tangible effect on the meaning of a sentence, then keep it. If it does not, ditch it. As far as I'm concerned, "whom" can go the way of the dodo; no one even knows why we have it any more. I'd even be willing to see the apostrophe go, rather than see it constantly graffiti-ed around internet comment sections. The rule against splitting infinitives is just stupid (though I have found many times that if you find yourself in a situation where you are compelled to do so, you've likely made a deeper grammatical mistake), while the subject pronoun/linking verb rule is more about formal vs informal speech, which is an almost universal linguistic trait.
    "Occam" is the name of the alien race that will enslave us all eventually. And they've got razors for hands. I don't know if that's true but it seems like the simplest answer."

    Stephen Colbert.

  3. #33
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    But, aren't all word usages manufactured? It seems to me that some distinctions are manufactured by the folk as a whole, while others are manufactured by individuals. I get the impulse to stand with the plebs; I come from a long line of hardcore socialists. But to me it doesn't really matter who made a tool, as long as the tool is useful. After all, we laud Shakespeare for his contributions to our language, and the wisdom of the masses can lead us astray. You cannot tell me English is better off without a plural "you".
    To be honest, I'm not sure I get the point you were trying to make about Shakespeare, and about whether it matters or not who made the rule (somehow you seem to be saying both that it does matter and that it doesn't matter). I think the key though is the "as long as the tool is useful." What I am saying is that I don't think it's very useful, so if people do away with it, I'm fine with that.

    There are lots of things like that. Just as another example, though it's interesting when teaching English to non-native speakers, the idea of having to use "a school of fish" versus "a herd of deer" and "a pack of dogs" is kind of quaint but not really a useful distinction. "A group" does just fine, and in many languages (for example, Japanese), there is just one word (or rather two words, one of Japanese etymology and the other Chinese, kind of like the Germanic/Latin pairs in English like freedom and liberty).
    As above, so below

  4. #34
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    I suppose as a lifelong writer I will always have some prescriptive instincts.
    Perhaps a confession of sorts, but I am basically a professional writer and editor, and I do make prescriptive changes, so if I am editing a document I will definitely change "less" to "fewer" even if I realize it doesn't really matter (and like you, I would not change "who" to "whom" because at least in my vernacular, it is no longer a distinction).
    As above, so below

  5. #35
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    Schooling, flocking, herding and pack hunting are all very different behaviours with very different goals, so I wouldn't say they aren't useful. My point was that we may grumble about the arbitrary rules invented by a lonely anonymous grammarian, but we celebrate the contributions made by someone like Shakespeare. Many words Shakespeare invented are forgotten today, but what remains is wonderful. Many of the rules those grammarians invented should also be forgotten. But that doesn't mean their suggestions were always bad. I don't care who came up with a tool, as long as the tool works.
    "Occam" is the name of the alien race that will enslave us all eventually. And they've got razors for hands. I don't know if that's true but it seems like the simplest answer."

    Stephen Colbert.

  6. #36
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    I suppose as a lifelong writer I will always have some prescriptive instincts. My feeling is, if it has a tangible effect on the meaning of a sentence, then keep it. If it does not, ditch it.
    By which reasoning, you should ditch the "few/less" dichotomy, which has no tangible effect on the meaning of a sentence, any more than a split infinitive or an object pronoun after a linking verb. That's my point. It's not these things are inventions, it's that they're pointless, functionless inventions.

    Grant Hutchison

  7. #37
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    Schooling, flocking, herding and pack hunting are all very different behaviours with very different goals, so I wouldn't say they aren't useful.
    I might just have a simple mind, but I understand the difference between pack hunting (with the aim to get prey) and herd behavior (with the goal to avoid becoming prey). But the difference between elk (gang) and deer (herd)? Or between larks (exaltation)?? and jays (parties)? Somehow it just seems like a game to me, to make rules for different animals to give "modern major generals" the chance to display their knowledge. Is it really something more than that?
    As above, so below

  8. #38
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    My point was that we may grumble about the arbitrary rules invented by a lonely anonymous grammarian, but we celebrate the contributions made by someone like Shakespeare. Many words Shakespeare invented are forgotten today, but what remains is wonderful.
    Sure, why not? You are comparing someone who invented something positive, new words and expressions, to someone who tried to forbid others from using certain expressions. I would celebrate James Joyce for inventing the term "quark", but why should I celebrate the person who decided that we shouldn't use the term "ain't" because it is somehow uncouth? To me those are very different.
    As above, so below

  9. #39
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    By which reasoning, you should ditch the "few/less" dichotomy, which has no tangible effect on the meaning of a sentence, any more than a split infinitive or an object pronoun after a linking verb. That's my point. It's not these things are inventions, it's that they're pointless, functionless inventions.
    I wouldn't even use the term "inventions." Rather I would say "judgements."
    As above, so below

  10. #40
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I might just have a simple mind, but I understand the difference between pack hunting (with the aim to get prey) and herd behavior (with the goal to avoid becoming prey). But the difference between elk (gang) and deer (herd)? Or between larks (exaltation)?? and jays (parties)? Somehow it just seems like a game to me, to make rules for different animals to give "modern major generals" the chance to display their knowledge. Is it really something more than that?
    There's a core of collective nouns that date back to "terms of venery"--words used as terms of art by mediaeval hunters. In part they were making distinctions important to them, in part it was a in-group / out-group thing--hence the existence of things like the Boke of St Albans (our source for many of these old terms), which was a primer for young men who wanted to join the in-group. There are some modern terms that are misunderstood versions of old terms (a "charm" of finches started out as a "chirm"--a reference to the little social noises they make when flocking). And there's a whole bunch which have been recently invented for fun, which we can adopt for fun if we want.

    Grant Hutchison

  11. #41
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    Sure, why not? You are comparing someone who invented something positive, new words and expressions, to someone who tried to forbid others from using certain expressions. I would celebrate James Joyce for inventing the term "quark", but why should I celebrate the person who decided that we shouldn't use the term "ain't" because it is somehow uncouth? To me those are very different.
    "Ain't" is a better contraction of "am not" than "aren't", and was originally the formal way of saying it. I have no sympathy for anyone who says we shouldn't use a word. That would counter the very point I'm trying to make.
    "Occam" is the name of the alien race that will enslave us all eventually. And they've got razors for hands. I don't know if that's true but it seems like the simplest answer."

    Stephen Colbert.

  12. #42
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I might just have a simple mind, but I understand the difference between pack hunting (with the aim to get prey) and herd behavior (with the goal to avoid becoming prey). But the difference between elk (gang) and deer (herd)? Or between larks (exaltation)?? and jays (parties)? Somehow it just seems like a game to me, to make rules for different animals to give "modern major generals" the chance to display their knowledge. Is it really something more than that?
    Poetry? Plus most of them are of historical interest only. When was the last time you heard a group of ravens called an "impoliteness"? The only hyper-specific collective noun I've heard in common parlance is "a murder of crows," because it's awesome.
    "Occam" is the name of the alien race that will enslave us all eventually. And they've got razors for hands. I don't know if that's true but it seems like the simplest answer."

    Stephen Colbert.

  13. #43
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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    "Ain't" is a better contraction of "am not" than "aren't", and was originally the formal way of saying it. I have no sympathy for anyone who says we shouldn't use a word. That would counter the very point I'm trying to make.
    But that's exactly what the proscriptive approach to fewer/less says: "You shouldn't use 'less' for a count noun." And it makes that proscription for no useful reason. The analogy with "ain't" is precise.

    ETA: In these parts, by the way, we use "amn't" for "am I not", and are bemused that others don't.
    "Ain't", according to the OED, is another version of "aren't" (sometimes rendered "an't"). Originally Cockney, and then affected by the British upper classes.

    Grant Hutchison
    Last edited by grant hutchison; 2020-Oct-26 at 02:15 PM.

  14. #44
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    We are approaching jargon, all specialities use jargon. Sometimes good reasons sometimes bad. Collective nouns can be useful or quaint or just snobbery.
    sicut vis videre esto
    When we realize that patterns don't exist in the universe, they are a template that we hold to the universe to make sense of it, it all makes a lot more sense.
    Originally Posted by Ken G

  15. #45
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    We are approaching jargon, all specialities use jargon. Sometimes good reasons sometimes bad. Collective nouns can be useful or quaint or just snobbery.
    sicut vis videre esto
    When we realize that patterns don't exist in the universe, they are a template that we hold to the universe to make sense of it, it all makes a lot more sense.
    Originally Posted by Ken G

  16. #46
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    I've just been reminded, by Dr Anthony Fauci, no less, that "fewer/less" has an analogy in "number of/amount of". In a recent interview on British television, referring to a future Covid vaccine, Fauci said, "The amount of doses that will be available in December will not certainly be enough to vaccinate everybody." A grammatical proscriptivist would have insisted on "number of doses", which wouldn't change the sense of Fauci's statement at all. What would change his sense is if he'd said "certainly not be" rather than "not certainly be". Given the realities of vaccine manufacture, distribution and administration, I suspect he may actually have meant "certainly not be".

    Grant Hutchison

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