In this episode I talk about grammar – what it is, where it comes from, how it develops, and how knowledge of grammar can help you to learn languages. This post was partly inspired by this post on the Polyglots (Community) group on Facebook.
1a. The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences.
1b. The study of structural relationships in language or in a language, sometimes including pronunciation, meaning, and linguistic history.
2a. The system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language.
2b. The system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language.
3a. A normative or prescriptive set of rules setting forth the current standard of usage for pedagogical or reference purposes.
3b. Writing or speech judged with regard to such a set of rules.
According to Wikipedia, grammar in linguistics is:
The set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes phonology, morphology, and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.
To non-linguistics grammar might be:
rules of spelling and punctuation.
a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to.
In this episode I discuss the distinction between between less and fewer, and commonly-held beliefs about English grammar and usage. I investigate where these ‘rules’ and practises originated and find out who is responsible.
Less & Fewer
Less was used to mean fewer, i.e. a smaller number of from the 9th century. From the 11th century it was being used to mean smaller or lesser – a comparative form of little. By the 14th century it was being used to mean a smaller amount (of) or not as much.
It comes from the Old English lǣs (less), from the Proto-Germanic *laisiz [source].
Fewer is used to mean a smaller number of something, and is generally used before plural countable things. For example, fewer words, fewer letters.
It comes from few, from the Middle English fewe (few, little, not many; small, little), from the Old English fēaw (few), from the Proto-Germanic *fawaz (few), from Proto-Indo-European *peh₂w- (few, small). [source].
“LESS. This word is moſt commonly uſed in ſpeaking of a number; where I ſhould think Fewer would do better. No fewer than a Hundred, appears to me not only more elegant than No leſs than a Hundred, but more ſtrictly proper.”
A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, “to scientifically illustrate.” But surely this is a practice unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.
The Prepoſition is often ſeparated from the Relative which it governs, and joined to the Verb at the end of the Sentence, or of ſome member of it: as, “Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with.” “The world is too well bred to ſhock authors with a truth, which generally their bookſellers are the firſt that inform them of.” This is an Idiom which our language is ſtrongly inclined to; it prevails in common converſation, and ſuits very well with the familiar ſtyle in writing; but the placing of the Prepoſition before the Relative is more graceful as well as more perſpicuous; and agrees much better with the ſolemn and elevated Style.