view of a contradiction that infuses allnof descriptivism, and it can be statednwithout reference to a definition ofn”dictionary.” The general contradictionnis that descriptivism is founded onnan axiom that accepts “A” (popularnusage) and rejects “B” (any other authoritynor criterion for correctness)neven when acceptance of “A” commitsndescriptivism to an acceptance of “B,”nwhich is rejected by the axiom (“A”)nthat requires its acceptance.nThere are problems with descriptivismnthat many will find even morenserious than the failure of logical structure.nDescriptivism would have us almostnimmediately follow the lead ofnpeople-in-general, even when doing sonwould eradicate a distinction that increasesnprecision. So, for example, asnsoon as people begin to ignore thendistinction between “continuous”n(how a faucet runs) and “continual”n(how a faucet drips), the distinctionndissolves for the descriptivist. Thenprescriptivist, on the other hand, believesnthat when a distinction increasesnprecision, as does the distinction betweenn”continuous” and “continual,”nthere is every reason to maintain it wellnpast the point where most have begunnto ignore it.nThere does, no doubt, often come antime when only the etymologist remembersna worthwhile distinction, andnby that point even the prescriptivist hasncome to favor ignoring it. But while ansignificant minority maintains the distinction,nso that its fate remains innquestion, the prescriptivist favors retention.nIndeed, it is primarily this thatnmakes him a prescriptivist.nNow it might seem, and often is thencase, that the prescriptivist is the conservativenyearning for stability, whilenthe descriptivist is the radical who sees ‘nthe hands of the people as the onlynproper repository for power, linguisticnor otherwise. But this is not always so.nSome of us find the most dependablendefense against the tendentiousness ofnall groups, the literary elite included, tonbe a precision of language that exposesnmuddled thought.nThe difference between the prescriptivistnwho is an elitist and thenprescriptivist who trusts not even thenliterary elite can be seen in the defenseneach supplies for his prescriptivism.nWhile both are interested primarily innprecision and the other virtues of cor­n50/CHRONICLESnrect usage, the elitist tends to accept fornits own sake the value of speaking andnwriting like — indeed being like — thenliterary elite that provides his correctndefinitions and usages. He identifiesnwith the literary elite and sees as correctnnot merely the precise, but then”appropriate.”nThe nonelitist prescriptivist, on thenother hand, cares primarily about thenprecision. Moved only by valid argument,nhe rejects the assessments madenby the literary elite when the assessmentnis supported only by self-appeal.nAnalogously, he is likely to ignore thenillogical rule stating that the quotationnmarks at the end of the precedingnparagraph should come after the period.nLikewise, the prescriptivist of thisnstripe rarely has much interest in pronunciation,nbecause mispronunciationnrarely interferes with the rigor, precision,nand communication that are hisninterests.nThe distinction between the twontypes of prescriptivists can be seen inntheir differing attitudes towards thendistinction between “less” andn”fewer.” The traditionalist prescriptivistndoes not question the value of thenclaim that “less” must be used with thencontinuous (a stream of water) andn”fewer” with the discrete (drops ofnwater). I must admit that I abhor thenincreasing use of “less people” asnmuch as does the traditionalistnprescriptivist. But my point is preciselynthat feelings on such matters —nwhether one’s own feelings or those ofnan elite — have no persuasive powernwhen not supported by valid argument.n”Less people” sounds terriblenonly because of the rule that one mustnmaintain the alleged distinction betweenn”less” and “fewer.” If, as Insuggest, the distinction is not a legitimatenone, then a sensibility rooted innthe illegitimate distinction is illegitimatenas well.nSuperficially, the distinction betweenn”less” and “fewer” seems analogousnto that between “continuous”nand “continual.” But note the crucialndifference between the two pairs: thendistinction between “continuous” andn”continually” increases precision, bynproviding information not otherwisenprovided: “the leak is continuous” isndifferent from “the leak is continual.”nIn the case of “less” and “fewer,”nhowever, the information that deter­nnnmines the choice of words must benstated (i.e., “less water” or “fewerndrops of water”). Thus, the distinctionnbetween “less” and “fewer” does notnprovide any new information of precision;nthe distinction is merely redun-n. dant. The only effect of this redundancynis to increase inelegance.nNow, the inevitable response to allnthis by the traditionalist prescriptivist isnto argue that such “logic chopping”nwould maim, if not rend, the language.nThe problem with this criticism is thatnits assumption is untrue: removing redundantndistinctions like that betweenn”less” and “fewer” would not do anynharm to the language, but would merelynremove a few analogous nondistinctionsn(like that between “amount” andn”number”).nThe first fact I ever heard about ournlanguage remains the fact that mostnimpresses me: no two synonyms meannexactly the same thing. The capacitynfor precision that this fact implies is ournlanguage’s greatest strength. (No onenhas ever claimed for English the hpnornof being the most euphonious or mostneasily-learned language.) We shouldnnot let the language shred at the edgesnfor no reason.nThere are many other aspects ofnEnglish for which elegance, simplicity,nand precision do not justify the jettisoningnof distinctions. We would not,nfor example, change all of the presenttensenforms of “to be” to “am” (“Inam,” “you am,” “he am” . . . ) because,nat the very least, euphony wouldnbe lost. In the case of “to be,” in othernwords, there is a need met by thenmaintenance of distinctions and thendistinctions are not, therefore, redundant.nBut this cannot be said for thennondistinction between “less” andn”fewer” and the few nondistinctionsnanalogous to that between “less” andn”fewer.” That such distinctions are notnnecessary is clear from the fact that itnhas been hundreds of years since anyonenhas had the nerve to insist that wendistinguish between “more” and “mo”nwhen describing “water” and “drops ofnwater.”nSteven Goldberg is an associatenprofessor at City College in New York.nHis work has appeared in The YalenReview, Psychiatry, AmericannAnthropologist, Journal of Psychiatrynand Neurology, and Ethics.n