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If the minstrel boy to the war had gone

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A few weeks back, I re-listened to the Clancy Brothers' rendition of “The Minstrel Boy,” and it's been running through my head intermittently ever since. Stirring and patriotic in an enjoyably over-the-top kind of way. But one thing keeps bothering me about the lyrics.

The second half of the first verse goes like this, according to Wikipedia:

“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,

“Tho' all the world betray thee,

One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,

One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

What's the problem? Well, “betray thee” and “praise thee” don't rhyme.

No problem, you may be thinking; just change it to “betrays thee.” And indeed, that may be how the original version went; a copy of the sheet music from 1895 says “betrays,” and that's how the Clancy Brothers sing it, so Wikipedia's version of the lyrics may be wrong. (The song was originally written between 1798 and 1852, though, so I'm not sure whether the 1895 version reflects the original lyrics or not.)

But there's still a problem:

“Though all the world betrays thee” gets the subjunctive form of the verb wrong. [Updated this paragraph and the following one a few days after posting, to clarify my confusing original phrasing.]

I realize that few today care about the poor subjunctive. But every time the song has run through my head in the past few weeks—and that has been a great many times—I've been mildly annoyed by this. When forced to choose between correct rhyme and correct subjunctive, which should one choose?

I suppose that another option is to take the line out of the subjunctive entirely, and make it a prediction instead, perhaps something like “When all the world betrays thee.” But somehow the semi-archaic phrasing of “Though all the world” appeals to me and seems to me to fit the general tone of the song well.

At any rate, I don't have a good answer. But I'm hoping that if I write this up as a blog entry, it will stop nagging at me.

Many of those two

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The sort of phrasing problem that comes up when you try to present statistics in terms of small numbers:

More people are using condoms, for example, but they still play a part in only one in three sexual acts, and many of those remaining two acts could benefit from condom use, Reece says.

p. 3 of an ABC News article about a new survey of sexual behavior.

(See also the vaguely related 2005 Language Log entry on WTF grammar.)

Which roundaboutly reminds me that the other day I saw a news article that said something would take “fewer than three months.” Which sounds weird to me; that phrasing suggests to me that it would take either exactly one month or exactly two months, but not (say) one and a half months, because “fewer” suggests to me that it's talking about something that comes in discrete and more or less indivisible units.

The usual rule as described on a bunch of grammar web pages is that “less” is for mass nouns and “fewer” is for count nouns, which is all very well as far as it goes, but then the pages generally add that there's an exception to the rule, in that it's traditional to use “less” when talking about time. To me, that exception suggests that the usual framing of the rule is wrong; it's not so much about mass nouns vs count nouns as such, because time units (month, day, hour, second, etc) are count nouns. In my view, the rule is instead that if you're talking about discrete items as if they're indivisible, you use “fewer.”

At any rate, regardless of how the rule is presented, the outcome is the same: it's generally considered incorrect to use “fewer” with units of time. And yet, apparently people do it all the time:

Before I started looking into this, I would have said that no native speaker of English would say “fewer than three months” or “fewer than one hour.” But I would have been wrong; Googling for those phrases shows instances of each. The latter is much less common—most of the instances I saw in skimming the Google results are accidental, with punctuation in the middle—but not nonexistent. (Though the estimated number of instances for “fewer than one hour” is vastly overinflated; Google estimates 1.5 million instances, but shows only 21 if you page through the results.)

In fact, even the phrase “fewer than one second” occurs on web pages.

I wonder if these are cases of people trying to appear educated. But a bunch of the “fewer than three months” instances appear in articles in respected news venues. So it's possible that my intuition about what sounds right to people is just wrong here.

If you need to point someone to a definitive reference about the usual rule, I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style FAQ item about less and fewer, which quotes the American Heritage Dictionary's usage note. There are a bunch of other web pages out there that give essentially the same information, but Chicago and AHD are more authoritative.

Happy National Grammar Day!

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It's National Grammar Day!

Apparently created by the folks who brought us the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG).

The National Grammar Day site initially looked annoyingly prescriptivist to me, but their Top Ten Grammar Myths suggests that they're more flexible than I had given them credit for.

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