The Soft Bigotry of Grammatical Sloth

10 Items or Less (or, Fewer, Really)I have a disease so thoroughly insinuated in my being that it could reasonably be described as biological. It’s my parents’ faults, really. At the same time I blame and thank them. They’ve policed my grammar so vigilantly for so long that I both blame them for my does-not-compute aversion to faulty language structure and thank them for holding me to a higher standard. This isn’t simply because it’s important to speak correctly and clearly but because it demonstrates commitment to excellence and most capably describes the world God made. I take it as axiomatic that cultured people keep a dictionary and Strunk and White within arm’s reach of their desks at all times. So, you won’t be surprised when I point out that I am daily perturbed at the casual nature of everyday language, even in published media. Okay, so I’m a word and grammar snob. Deal with it.

But I couldn’t keep quiet on this one for what it says about our laxity in multiple ways. The pharmaceutical behemoth Merck has a vaccine for cervical cancer called Gardasil. On their commercials young women hold up a sign reading: “One less” to show they are one “less” woman affected by cervical cancer, which is, of course, great. But, grammatically, this is wrong. It’s one FEWER woman. One woman is a quantifiable entity. Here’s a good explanation.

Here’s the rub… There is no way that mistake escaped the dozens of marketing people to which Merck outsourced that campaign. So, assuming I’m right that “less” did not escape the notice of many well-educated professionals, that means Gardasil’s motto is intentionally incorrect. Intentionally wrong.

Why? Because it’s easier to capitulate to rules of language passively directed by democratic principles than real ones derived from hundreds of years of the evolution of English. Because communicating correctly is less important than communicating easily, which, on the one hand, is its own wisdom. On the other, it inculcates, even if in a small way, the idea that standards do not matter and that our world is just chemistry and matter.

Word usage is almost incidental, frankly. I’m well aware that language is organic and ever-changing. But casual language doesn’t reckon with the idea that what we say means something, that our words are far more endowed with eternity than we think. Language is so important it can be sacramental.

Jesus came as a written as well as lived Word. When Jesus said “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” he was stating in principle that our earthy, seemingly mundane existence is never really just that, but that we can help or hurt with our mouths. James writes, “Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

Of course less versus fewer is only the tip of the iceberg in a sense and I realize blessing and cursing is not the same distinction as less and fewer. But help versus hurt is an important principle for language, and disciplining one’s word usage can be part of a lifestyle of using the resource of language to bring God glory instead of disrepute.

Sometimes there really are better words, regardless of the cultural vote. God’s creation deserves better than the soft bigotry of language by democracy. And, while I am sometimes (okay, regularly) accused of straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel, God’s creation deserves better, and I don’t think we’re called to succumb to the lowest common denominator.

Fewer shoddy words, less inadequate language.


2 Responses

  1. While I agree with your grammar rant, what does religion have to do with it? Seems like your parents gave you another disease that is thoroughly insinuated in your being.

  2. Nico, if you’re still out there… Indeed, I do have that disease. Thank you.

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