Now I’m no mathematician, even less a scientist, but as far as I understand it, maths, like physics, follows certain immutable laws, over which human beings have no control. We discover these laws, and maybe change our minds about them, but we do not make them. They would equally exist in a world without people.
- may vs can for permission
When I was at school, if someone asked the teacher, ‘Please Sir, can I go to the toilet?’, the teacher would reply, ‘I don’t know. Can you?’ - can was for ability; you had to use may for permission. Nowadays, when used in conversation, may can often sound over-formal and a bit old-fashioned.
Swan: ‘In an informal style can and cannot / can’t are more common [than may and may not]’
- to whom vs who to
Which sounds more natural to you:
For anyone in the UK under the age of about 100, the answer is undoubtedly the latter. The former sounds too formal and old-fashioned. (Note that for some people my use of the words former and latter, in that previous sentence, probably also sounds a bit formal and old-fashioned).
- To whom should I give this book?
- Who should I give this book to?
Here is Swan again: ‘Whom is not often used in informal English. We prefer to use who as an object, especially in questions’, and he gives as one of his examples: ‘Who did you go with?’, at the same time pointing out that if you do put the preposition first, then you need to use whom: ‘With whom did you go?’, which he calls ‘very formal’.
I actually saw a comment on another ‘grammar’ website, which said that the sentence: ‘Who is this book about?’ is incorrect, and that we should say instead: ‘About whom is this book?’. Nobody, but nobody, speaks like that. If you said something like that, people would either wonder which planet you’d just arrived from, or think that you were trying to sound clever.
- if I were vs if I was
This use of were in second conditional sentences is one of the few instances in English where subjunctive is still used. I’ve written about the subjunctive before, but basically over the centuries it has been gradually disappearing from the English language. And in this context, in the UK at least, it is increasingly being replaced by past simple, except in fixed expressions such as ‘If I were you’.
The use of ‘I wish’ for hypothetical situations follows the same rules as second conditional. Egypt’s tourism office ran a series of TV ads (no doubt made by a Western advertising agency) with the slogan, ‘I wish I was in Egypt’, and I can’t remember any great outcry of indignation. This is how many ordinary educated people speak nowadays.
Swan gives as an example: ‘I wish that I was better looking’, but admittedly does goes on to say, ‘Many people use were instead of was, especially in a formal style.’
- fewer vs less
This is more about a change that seems to be in process right now, than one that has already happened. I imagine that most grammar books still agree: use few / fewer for countable nouns and little / less for uncountable nouns.
I have few friends (c) and little money (u). I’m such a saddo. But somewhere there’s somebody with even fewer friends and even less money than me. Now that makes me feel much better!
But increasingly people are using less where they ‘should’ say fewer. The most notable example is the supermarkets, who have check-out aisles marked, ‘10 items or less’, although one large chain, Tescos, has recently changed from less to fewer, bowing to pressure from the 'grammar police' (see below). I often catch myself saying less when I know it 'should' be fewer. At the moment I try and correct myself, but I suspect that in fifty years time or so, people will not worry much about the difference.
Again according to Swan, ‘Less is quite common before plural nouns, as well as uncountables, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect.’ My emphasis would be on ‘some’.
NB But in English exams you're better keeping to the formal rule: fewer for countable nouns and less for uncountable nouns. That way you can't go wrong.
Links for Tescos and those signs
- Someone who studies language or linguistics
- Someone who studies foreign languages and/or speaks several of them.