Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) is a thoroughly researched and witty compendium on usage. Unlike ‘Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,’ which has only occasional usage notes, MWDEU presents 2,300 detailed entries. Each MWDEU entry, typically, comprises a history of its usage, with examples cited from classic and contemporary texts, and concludes with a recommendation — not a prescription — from the editorial board. As an example of the MWDEU editors’ comprehensive review, let’s take a look at the “less/fewer” distinction.
The authoritative usage reference in academia, “The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition,” prescribes a simple-to-follow rule: “Reserve ‘less’ for mass nouns, or amounts–for example, less salt, dirt, water. Reserve ‘fewer’ for countable things–fewer people, calories, grocery items, suggestions. One easy guideline is to use ‘less’ with singular nouns and ‘fewer’ with plural nouns” (p. 221). This simple prescription, however, is oversimplified. It is inaccurate as MWDEU notes below.
MWDEU begins its detailed entry (pp. 592-94) by commenting on the above rule: “This rule is simple enough and easy enough to follow. It has only one fault — it is not accurate for all usage…. ‘Less’ refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted.
“As far as we have been able to discover, the received rule originated in 1770 as a comment on ‘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–Baker 1770.
“Baker’s remarks about ‘fewer’ express clearly and modestly — ‘I should think,’ ‘appears to me’ — his own taste and preference….Notice how Baker’s preference has been generalized and elevated to an absolute status and his notice of contrary usage has been omitted.”
MWDEU then presents examples of “less” used of countables by writers ranging from King Alfred the Great (in his own translation from the Latin, written around 888) to Noel Gilroy Annan (ACLS Newsletter, 1969). It concludes: “Many of you have seen signs on express lanes at supermarkets saying,’Twelve items or less’; and others, perhaps, may recall the contests in which a sentence was to be completed in ‘twenty-five words or less.’ ‘Less’ is the choice in this construction.”
When I first read this entry in MWDEU, I took the book to the manager of the big supermarket, a few blocks from UC Berkeley campus, and asked her to revise the “Ten items or fewer” sign over the express lane. She thanked me and changed the sign, but a few months later a new manager was visited by the grammar police, who told her the simplistic “rule” and the sign reverted to the fussy ‘fewer.’ I gave the second manager a photocopy of the MWDEU pages, and she agreed to change the sign to ‘less.’ A year or so later, a third manager and the cycle repeated. Finally, I suggested “Ten-item limit.” That sign stands.
One MWDEU entry that I find highly objectionable: “Gyp: For some time now there has been a tendency to call attention to oneself or one’s group by taking public umbrage at some term or other as an ethnic slur. ‘Gyp’ which means ‘to cheat or swindle’ is probably derived from a noun that is probably short for Gypsy. This is a fairly remote derivation to take offense at, and we have no evidence that ‘gyp’ is ever used in an ethnically derogatory way” (p. 489). In contrast, MWDEU rightly notes on its entry “Jew and jew down: ‘Jew’ used as an adjective and the phrasal verb ‘jew down’ are usually considered offensive. The former should be replaced by ‘Jewish’ and the latter avoided altogether” (p. 571). In the “gyp” entry, the waffling repeat of “probably” and the nonsense of “no evidence” are patently prejudicial. The world’s 12 million Gypsy (Romani) people must not even object? What about their human rights?
I have enjoyed perusing nearly all of the MWDEU entries ever since I purchased the book in 1989 and keep it open on my desk for ready reference. It’s the best English usage guide.