Sunday, October 28, 2012

Much Too Many

In case you needed to read yet another article on the state of play in the U.S. Election, Slate posted a piece today that should help bring a few nervous Obamaphiles down from the ledge. As the author notes early on:
The latest Associated Press analysis of the race points out that Mitt Romney has much fewer paths to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election.
I hit a couple of speed bumps in that sentence. First of all, why bother with the AP breakdown--or any other poll analysis, for that matter--as long as uber-savant Nate Silver is on the case? It's like showing off your Zune at an Apple store.

And then there is the matter of that phrase, "much fewer paths." Doesn't sound right, does it? But then, "many fewer paths" isn't exactly sublime poetry either. So which is it?

Several minutes of exhaustive Googling reveals a schism in the word nerd community, and that never feels good.

For instance, over on, a senior user who goes by the handle inchoateknowledge states, with definitive assurance, that "fewer is an adjective and is modified by much as an adverb of degree. Many is a determiner, that is a noun modifier, and can not modify an adjective." Which sounds pretty conclusive and contains lots of intimidating grammar jargon to boot.

But a couple of clicks away, the Word Watch column at the Hartford Courant has this to say:

 ...[T]he phrase "many fewer," despite its seeming contradiction, is perfectly correct. That's because the adjective "many" is used with countable items (discrete or separate entities), such as people, pebbles and polliwogs. So when you're referring to a significant reduction in the number of countable items, "many fewer people" (or pebbles or polliwogs) is the correct choice. 
Unfortunately, because of the weird sound of "many fewer," some people fall into the error of using "much fewer" with countable items, as in, "Much fewer people came to the game." 
But "much" should be used only with mass, uncountable items, such as grain, rain and pain. So when you're referring to a substantial drop in the size of uncountable items, "much less grain" (or rain or pain) is the correct choice.
Ah, so the "many/much" question is tied to the "fewer/less" pickle that continues to flummox creators of signs at supermarket express checkout lanes and bunch the panties of grammar fetishists. And in this case, "paths" are definitely discrete, separate, and countable.

Personally, I come down on the side of "many fewer" on the grounds that if the outlook for Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations were rosier, you wouldn't say he has "much paths to reach 270 electoral votes," you would say "many paths." I don't see why the introduction of the word "fewer" in between should change that.

And it turns out that Slate agrees. As of now, I see they have edited the piece to change much to many in the sentence in question. Of course, if the author had just written "far fewerin the first place, we would have been spared all this kerfuffle and could have spent this time enjoying a nice sandwich.