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The Word

Countdown

One less thing to worry about

By Jan Freeman
May 24, 2009
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A couple of weeks ago, Joe Eskenazi of SF Weekly published a blog item headlined "Why Must Bike Activists Continue to Roll Over the English Language?" His beef: The T-shirt slogan "One Less Car." He thinks it should be "One Fewer Car." And even the leaders of San Francisco's bike coalition agree; yeah, we know it's wrong, they told Eskenazi.

But guess what? One less is correct. Yes, a strict observer of the less-fewer distinction would say "10 fewer cars," but the rule has some subtleties, and one less is one of them. Here's the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005) on the idiom: "Less is also used with singular count nouns in the expression one less, as in There is one less boat at the landing now."

In Garner's Modern American Usage (2003), Bryan A. Garner explains the exception by noting that less applies not to just to mass nouns but also to singular nouns; fewer is for countables, which are also plurals. And one, as a singular, gets a singular treatment; it's one less car, one less check, one less thing to worry about.

I don't know if that reasoning is truly what governs the usage. When Theodore Bernstein dealt with less and fewer in "The Careful Writer" (1965), he also pointed out that fewer runs into "idiom trouble" when the number gets down to one. "You cannot say 'one fewer seats,' nor can you say 'one fewer seat.' " But Bernstein declined to endorse one less: "The only escape hatch is 'one seat fewer,' " he said.

Earlier generations of usage critics, however, certainly used "one less," even if they subscribed to the traditional less-fewer line. Here's John Russell Bartlett, from his "Dictionary of Americanisms" (1848): "To play dummy, is to play with one person less than the requisite number." Joseph Fitzgerald, in "Word and Phrase" (1901): "Total for these three languages 57, or one less [vowel sound] than for English alone." H.L. Mencken in the American Mercury (1925): "There is one hypocrite less in London today."

Garner notes that in nearly one-fourth of his current examples, "writers use one fewer, an awkward and unidiomatic phrase," where one less would be better. "One can't help thinking that this is a kind of hypercorrection induced by underanalysis of the less-fewer distinction," he says. That is: it's a mistake caused by simple-minded application of a rule that isn't really so simple.

So bikers, hold your helmeted heads high above that "One Less Car" on your chest. And maybe it's time for a scholarly edition of the T-shirt - this time with a grammar footnote on the back.

. . .

BLATANT SHUCKSTERISM: Earlier this month, in a radio discussion about the collapse of the banking industry, one of the guests used a word I didn't know to describe certain bankers: shucksters. Aha, I thought: not shysters, not hucksters, but a combination of the word for "sleazy lawyers" and the word for "aggressive salespersons" combined in one neat package. Why not?

On the other hand, why? I had just been reading Patricia O'Conner's "Origins of the Specious," where (as I mentioned in last week's column) I learned that some people think shyster is anti-Semitic, probably because they connect it with Shylock. It's not, but if you were feeling at all squeamish about shyster, shuckster would be a handy substitute, similar sounding but broader in scope, covering all sorts of fakers and con artists.

Shuckster traces its ancestry to the 17th-century word shuck, which is "chiefly dialectal and U.S.," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, as a word for the hulls of nuts and seeds and the husks of corn. From this developed the 19th-century metaphorical sense of shuck as something worthless ("it don't matter shucks") and then for a cheat or swindle. The verb came along in the 19th century, first for shucking corn and oysters, then for clothes, remorse, and other burdens.

It was only in the mid-20th century that shuck came to mean fool or deceive. The OED's earliest example of the usage comes from Lawrence Lipton's 1959 guide to the Beat Generation, "The Holy Barbarians": "I didn't shuck the customers enough to please the crook who was running the car lot."

The agent noun that naturally goes with shuck is not shuckster, however, but shucker, as in someone who opens oysters. Shuckster, meaning "con man," doesn't show up in a Nexis newspaper search till April 1987. But if the word is recent, its shape is not: For 400 years, says the OED, the -ster suffix - originally associated with trade in all its grimy dodginess - has been used to form disparaging words: rhymester, punster, trickster, fraudster.

If it's creeping into the language, though, shuckster is creeping at a very petty pace: Since that first appearance 22 years ago, it has only appeared about 50 times in newspapers worldwide. That's surprising restraint toward a coinage that's vivid and clear, not politically incorrect, and so widely applicable to the newsmakers of our times.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.