I’ve been struggling with a grammar lesson that Julia has been trying to hammer into my skull the last few times I’ve seen her: every time I say something like “There are less people on this end of the train,” she snaps, “FEWER people.” Take note.
But then, according to Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, people is always singular, as in “A people of short stature inhabit this continent.” They say that “six people” is not to be confused with “six persons.” Points such as this are the target of heated criticism in a Room For Debate blog in the New York Times online (here). According to the writers in this discussion, The Elements of Style is behind the times as a model for “acceptable” English prose style because, whatever that is, good style continues to evolve.
I remember Sam said to me once that she cannot agree with people who say things like, “The great thing about English is that you can make it your own and bend it how you like,” in the manner of slang, dialects, and urban dictionary, I suppose. THERE ARE RULES, she said, AND WE MUST RESPECT THEM, or something to that effect.
This is true, but it’s our job as grammarians to RESIST them. To resist them, first we have to know the rules and understand them intricately.
So go READ SOME MORE. You can start here:
ON THE MANNER OF ADDRESSING CLOUDS
Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns,
Meekly you keep the mortal rendezvous,
Eliciting the still sustaining pomps
Of speech which are like music so profound
They seem an exaltation without sound.
Funest philosophers and ponderers,
Their evocations are the speech of clouds.
So speech of your processionals returns
In the casual evocations of your tread
Across the stale, mysterious seasons. These
Are the music of meet resignation; these
The responsive, still sustaining pomps for you
to magnify, if in that drifting waste
You are to be accompanied by more
Than mute bare splendors of the sun and moon.
–Wallace Stevens (from his Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1990. p. 55)
A final thought: “Funest” in the sixth line does not mean the epitome of fun. On the contrary, it is a now rare adjective meaning “Causing or portending death or evil; fatal, deadly, disastrous; deeply deplorable.” Thanks O.E.D.