"Have you heard what Mike Tomlinson said?"
Gabrielle was clearly annoyed. Mike Tomlinson used to be Head of Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) and is currently reviewing the A-Level system. As a teacher, she was probably concerned about the extent of the reform.
"Oh yes. It’s going to be a bit of a shake-up, isn’t it?"
She looked at me, incredulous. Then relieved.
"You can’t have heard. You’ll never guess what he said."
I was now curious. What outrageous statement had he made?
"Here is a man incredibly concerned about education standards who says to a journalist: ‘There will be less examinations.’"
Her expectant eyes were telling me that I had to have some kind of reaction. There clearly was something very wrong with that statement. I hazarded a guess:
"That’s outrageous. There aren’t enough as it is."
That is when I lost the respect of a very dear friend. Of course what she was referring to was the incorrect use of less followed by examinations. Less should only be used with mass nouns (bureaucracy, butter), and here we find it with a plural count noun. The correct expression is therefore fewer examinations. This is one of those mistakes that are becoming more and more common in spoken and written language and can even be found in "serious" papers like the Guardian.
Now people who care about grammar are often labelled as pedants. I simply say they (we) are not! Grammar is crucial to language. It permeates everything and allows ideas and concepts to be clearly put together. Undermine grammar and you undermine your ability to communicate efficiently, and that’s why people like Gabrielle get irritated when people like Mike Tomlinson (who, presumably, is educated to quite a high level) don’t give it the respect it deserves.
The other great thing about grammar is that when you know it well, you can play with it, twist it, ignore it when it suits you to give a whole new flavour to what you’re saying. Grammar says you mustn’t start a sentence with but. But doing so can create an interesting jarring effect that might sharpen the reader’s attention. A sentence isn’t a sentence without a verb and Microsoft Word will reward you with a green squiggle if you dare to do without the Master of Ceremonies that the verb is. Maybe so. However, occasionally flaunting the rules can amount to shock tactics to win back a wayward reader. Know thy grammar and thou can cajole it into serving you to express yourself better. After all, that’s what language is all about.