Thursday, June 09, 2011

When Grammar Meets Math

Men aren't wearing ties as much as they used to! So goes the premise of a story in this week's Maclean's--a premise supported mostly by anecdotal evidence (and photos) of politicians favoring open collars. The piece veers toward "bogus trend" territory when it seems to contradict that premise with this line: "Sales [of ties] in Canada are up a modest six percent between 2009 and 2010..." But the author posits that the increase can be chalked up to the purchases of job interviewees, "Mad Men" wannabes, and ironic hipsters. The more telling stat, apparently, comes in this pull-quoted sentence:

Fewer than six percent of American men wear ties to work. In Britain, less than 20 percent of men wear them.

When we last visited the fewer vs. less debate, we found that the old "fewer grains of sand vs. less sand" shortcut didn't always apply, and that the most comprehensive rule to follow was "fewer for plural, less for singular." But this is a new twist. Is "six percent" a single quantity or a plural?

Luckily, a quick Google search shows that someone has sent this specimen off to the lab for analysis and the guys in the white lab coats at the Chicago Manual of Style have come back with the results. They start by quoting an American Heritage Dictionary ruling that "Less than is used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance"--thereby muddying the waters of our singular/plural guideline pool. They go on to opine that a percentage should qualify as such a plural noun, on the grounds that...well, you can read it yourself if you're still awake at this point.

In any case, the editors of Maclean's seem to have found their own non-solution by going with fewer in the first sentence of that pull quote and less in the second, ensuring that they get it right no less than fifty percent of the time.