Saturday, January 19, 2008

summing up the world

When famous Harvard psychology prof Steven Pinker found himself on the Colbert Report, he was asked to sum up the nature of his field in five words or less.* Quick-thinking genius that he is, Pinker paused for only a second or two, then said, counting the words out on his fingers:

"Brain cells fire in patterns."

Everyone in the audience was appropriately wowed by this intellectual feat, as was I.

I'm reading two books filled with quotables right now-- Tom Robbins's Another Roadside Attraction and Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters, a book that might be taken as a reply to "the New Atheism," as some are calling the current phenomenon (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Pinker, et al.). On page 232 of Why Religion Matters, Smith says something that is both brief and, to me, almost as striking as Pinker's five-word utterance:

"Worldviews are unprovable."

Something to ponder. Something to give a man pause during his morning shit.

*Why not "five words or fewer?" you ask. Good question. Even though "word" is a countable noun, I suspect that, in this context, "five words" is treated as a solid block of language.

Think about it: do you say "Ten days is a long time" or "Ten days are a long time"? I'm sure you say the former, which is correct. Of course, these sorts of rationales-- "Sometimes the grammatically countable is grammatically uncountable"-- simply reinforce, in learners' minds, the impression that English is one frothing, unhinged bitch of a language.



Malcolm Pollack said...

Thanks for the link, Kevin. That Colbert is a quick-witted fellow too.

I'm sure Pinker himself would have something to say about the grammatical choice you discuss. While I see your point, I'm going to have to go with "five words or fewer", though, because here we are dealing with the words specifically as discretely countable objects. That's the whole point of the sentence: will it be exactly five words, or four, or six?

The example you give using days is a curious one, since what is being counted is an arbitrary quantization of time, which is inherently continuous (well, in the non-quantum world, anyway). We wouldn't, for example, ask "How much days did it take?" But "ten days" can indeed be seen as a single "bale" of time, as you say. We even use metaphors related to the imaginary physical dimensions of the bales of time we create, as in "So how long have you folks belonged to NAMBLA?", or "He gutted that porcupine in under ten seconds!"

Pinker wrote an interesting book about this sort of thing, called Words and Rules (which you may already have read, of course).

Kevin said...


I think I've got common usage on my side here: a Google search of the exact phrase "words or less" turns up 1.41 million results, whereas a search of the exact phrase "words or fewer" turns up only about 176,000 results. While we could say, in this case, that this doesn't make the "less" users correct, I'd say that this is, at least, strong evidence in favor of how common the phrase is.

Next, I appeal to authority, here invoking the 1993 Columbia Guide to Standard American English:

less, fewer (adjs.)

Standard English still usually requires this basic pattern: use less with mass nouns and fewer with plural count nouns, as in less employment, fewer jobs. But Common English — and even some Standard — increasingly uses less with plurals, especially after than. Edited English still follows the basic pattern rigorously, however, except in a few idiomatic locutions, as in in ten words or less; in certain phrases involving money, such as less than a thousand dollars; and in some phrases involving plural measures of time and distance or other measures, also with than (less than four days, less than ten miles, less than five cups of coffee). Even in these, Edited English prefers fewer, and for many conservatives, the use of less where fewer is expected remains a strong shibboleth.

You linguistic conservative, you.

A GMAT blog (not very authoritative, perhaps) says this:

5) Use less when referring to statistical or numerical expressions.
Sara is less than five feet tall.
Your issue essay should be a thousand words or less.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the god I worship, also echoes my feeling that "X words or less" is legitimate. See here.

Finally, the online Merriam Webster also skews Kevinward when it says that "in 25 words or less" is legitimate.


Malcolm Pollack said...


I defer, but I don't have to like it. Even a mossback like me knows that the rabble are the ultimate arbiters of the language; witness, for example, the impending congruence of "imply" and "infer" in common usage.

The examples given here, however, obscure the useful distinction between countable and continuous nouns. You can walk "less than ten" miles by walking 9.872 miles; you can also drink five-and-a-third cups of coffee, and a task can take three days, six hours, twelve minutes, and 13.445 seconds, which is of course less than four days, but more than three. If, however, you wish to express an idea in "five words or less", and choose to do so in less than five but more than four, I'll wager that the fractional word isn't adding much.

I don't mind that the language evolves - in fact I love a useful neologism - but when clarifying distinctions become undifferentiated goo, you'll continue to hear me croaking from my rocking chair.