More fewers and fewer lesses please: politics, education and pedantry

There were many aspects of the recent electoral campaign that disappointed me. I suspect many aspects disappointed you too. I’m not going to talk policies or ideologies in this post, but rather vent about a small, pedantic bee which buzzed around in my bonnet: language use. Not the nauseating rhetoric and three-word slogans, although these were mighty frustrating, but the demonstrations of politicians without a firm grasp on the English language.

The examples are too numerous and depressing to list, but Kevin Rudd using “bunch” as the collective noun for practically everything and Tony Abbott confusing suppository with repository are ones that stood out for me. The latter was great for a laugh… I had fun writing tweets like “It is well established that Tony Abbott is not the suppository (sic) of all wisdom but the big question is, will he be the enema of social justice?”

On-the-fly gaffs can be forgiven, but when an ALP TV campaign advertisement, for education of all things (!!), warned that there will be “less teachers, less opportunities and less programs” under a Coalition government, I felt a rising tide of despair.

Upon awaking to a new Australian government on the 8th of September, I turned my attention away from the election-news-filled Australian media and soothed my pedant’s itch with this highly entertaining piece from the Calgary Herald.

I literally died of laughter, but I’m still here, by Gene Weingarten.
Calgary Herald Saturday, September 07, 2013

Unlike the dearly-loved family member who sent me the link, I’m not a Nazi when it comes to language and grammar. I’m relatively unfazed by the relaxing of rules in informal writing, especially when emailing, texting, tweeting and blogging.

I don’t fervently object to the addition of new words to the Oxford English Dictionary, nor the shift in word meaning over time, even if that results in antonyms becoming synonyms. And while missing apostrophes and the seemingly unstoppable Americanisation sometimes grates, I accept that language is a dynamic and evolving beast.

However, I’m saddened by grammatical ignorance: errors committed without deliberate intent. With a government erroneously uses “less” instead of “fewer” in an advertisement boasting about its educational credentials, I shouldn’t be surprised that increasing numbers of young Australians are blissfully unaware that there is anything incorrect with such sentence construction.

Call me old fashioned, but I support the “You need to know the rules before you can break them” dictim. I apply the same principle to my practise and teaching of medicine:  I tell my students, “Get familiar with the clinical guidelines first. This allows you to make an informed choice whether or not to disregard them under certain circumstances.”

I’m all for a solid foundation – an advocate for anatomy and physiology subjects in medical school, and a focus on the three R’s in primary school.

And in the next  federal electoral campaign I would like to see fewer three-word slogans, fewer “bunches” and fewer ads using “less” instead of “fewer”. But I don’t mind if Tony Abbott adds to his “suppository” of verbal slips – they keep things entertaining.

(In case you’re wondering, my choice to start the last two sentences with conjunctions was entirely deliberate :-))