Thursday, November 10, 2011

Overcorrecting

"In general," says the AP's "fewer, less" entry, "use fewer for individual items, less for bulk or quantity." That's a good general rule; you can follow it and recommend it with no fear of setting off a which-hunt. And it should be pretty clear pretty fast that, in this case, the general rule calls for "less." 

The sentence is a quantity, measured here in years but equally measurable in months -- or, at the county jail, in weeks or days. "Fewer than 34 years" would be, oh, 33 or 32 years; "less than 34 years" is an amount under* 34 years, whether it's measured in years and months, months and days, years and days, or fathoms per hogshead.

It's tempting to say the hed at hand follows the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit, but that's not really true. It ignores the letter of the law as well. Here's the AP:
Wrong: She was fewer than 60 years old. (Years in this sense refers to a period of time, not individual years.)
There's a lot to dislike about the hed. I like it better when newspapers leave the topic-comment stuff to radio or TV, and as the years drag on, I'm less and less impressed by design habits that force all lede stories to be told in words of five or fewer letters.** That's OK for subject-verb-object heds, as long as the subject and object are "Iraq" or "Iran" or "cops" and the verb is "nab" or "seize" or "blast," but it's of limited use otherwise. And I really don't like heds that assume I've already read the story.

But my biggest complaint is with the "fewer," because it's so easy to envision all the time that can be eaten up by a nice old-fashioned less/fewer argument on deadline. Meanwhile, up the page, this lede was sneaking by:

Less than 6 minutes.

Prosecutors say that was the life span of the full-term, newborn boy whose 19-year-old mother is accused of strangling moments after she gave birth Friday in the employee restroom of a Streamwood Salvation Army store.


So we can get the distinction right in cliche ledes but not in cliche heds? Inquiring minds want to know.



* Don't even start.
** Using "less" here wouldn't make you a bad human being, but them sort of happenings just ain't seamanlike..

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have a unit analysis error there.

1:17 AM, November 11, 2011  
Blogger Jan said...

I'm no sailor, and in my dialect "words of five letters or less" is perfectly idiomatic. Not so this sentence, which seems to be lacking a pronoun:

"... that was the life span of the full-term, newborn boy whose 19-year-old mother is accused of strangling ___ moments after she gave birth Friday."

See Arnold Zwicky's blog for a thorough discussion of the issue. http://arnoldzwicky.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/a-puzzle-with-whose-relatives/

9:55 AM, November 11, 2011  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I was going to note that relative, too.

1:25 PM, November 11, 2011  

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