Everyone has their pet peeves. Some of us geeky writer-types have our silly grammar pet peeves, like the use of the word varietal as a noun, instead of the perfectly good, and grammatically correct, variety (I won’t flog that dead pony here. That’s been covered by many a more talented writer; see below). One of my silly pet peeves is that most insidious of all grammar mistakes, the granddaddy (or gramma? ow, bad pun) of them all: the distinction between less and fewer. In theory, it’s simple: one uses less to refer to amounts (measurable things), and fewer to refer to numbers (countable things). For example, “there are fewer people who care about this post because it is less interesting than some of the others.” In common usage, though, the the confusion has become so common that we need only glance up from the supermarket express checkout line, and there it is, beaming down cheekily at us: “15 items or less.” Why I should care, I really don’t know, but I guess that’s what makes a pet peeve a pet peeve: it’s something ridiculous that we happen to care about, for reasons unknown. Perhaps I was beaten up in nursery school by a bully named Billy Less.
Thus, for reasons unknown, I was amused last week when I discovered a 1974 McDonald’s stock certificate that bore the seal “LESS THAN 100 SHARES.” Yep, you’re right; that should read “FEWER.” No wonder McDonald’s is bad for you; it encourages bad grammar! I’m sensing a pattern here. Fast lane at the supermarket: grammatical errors. Fast food shares: grammatical errors. I think the lesson should be that fast things cause mistakes. I’m all for the slow thing. (Interestingly, someone at Mickey D’s seems to have caught on, or perhaps they just switched banks. A stock certificate from the mid-80s bears the ungainly, but grammatically correct, “Not more than.”)
Okay, now for my shamefaced admission. I am a McDonald’s shareholder, albeit a soon-to-be ex-shareholder. I have been a shareholder since 1974, when my grandparents got me two shares to teach their little grandchild the value of investments. Here’s the hypocrisy: I have also been a Slow Food member for almost a decade, since I visited the osteria Cagliostro in Pisa and asked my Pisan friends what the chiocciola (snail) on the door signified, and heard the story of Slow Food. The idea of Slow Food resonated. I came back from that trip to find that, while almost nobody I knew had heard of Slow Food, there was in fact a tiny but growing chapter in San Francisco, so I joined up. I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in forever, but for the last decade I’ve felt a twinge of guilt for that handful of shares I had somewhere, even though, as a gift given when I was a minor, the shares were legally in my mother’s name. At long last, this week I finally settled the score. I sent off the paperwork to get them transferred to me so that I can legally sell them. It’s not a lot of money, though after stock splits and dividend reinvestments for 34 years, it’s become something like 85 shares. I think I should do something decidedly slow with the money. Any suggestions?
Variety vs. Varietal:
- Jancis Robinson weighs in, and then some of her readers follow up.
- Derrick Schneider in “Obsession with food”
- Adrian Murcia in Blame it on Rioja