Word Crimes: The Hall of Fame — arguably — made a grammatical error on Greg Maddux’s plaque

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As Greg Maddux is my favorite player of all time, I obviously took a close look at his Hall of Fame plaque when it was unveiled yesterday. And when I did, something stood out:

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It’s the “less than 1,000 walks” that bugged me. I am of the view that it should be “fewer” not less. So, as Deadspin noted, I tweeted it out. This, as most grammar disputes do, led to some pretty impassioned debate.

Most people (myself included) are of the view that one uses “fewer” if one is referring to things in the plural which can be counted and “less” if you are referring to something that either doesn’t have a plural or can’t be counted. Examples: “fewer kids in this class than that class,” “fewer hot dogs on his plate than her plate” vs. “less time left in the game than we thought” or “I have less respect for the guy who puts ketchup on his hot dogs.”

Now, as is the case with all rules, there are exceptions. If the number stands alone without the noun named in reference to the lower quantity, you can use “less” (e.g. “He had 10 dogs, I had less”) or when you are referring to geographical distance or measures of time. Of course in this case such obvious exceptions do not apply. Walks are a finite thing which do not refer to distance or time, they do have a plural and they are mentioned properly at the end of the sentence.

Of course, just as there are always general exceptions, there are always increasingly obscure exceptions — or, short of that, traditions and customs of usage — which one can, if one is so inclined, find to justify their preferred usage. As this conversation evolved yesterday afternoon, many did find some slot in which to (arguably) place the Hall of Fame’s choice of “less” over “fewer” on Maddux’s plaque. I’m not suggesting it’s the easiest call on the planet. This isn’t an out or safe call here. It’s more of a first base ump’s call on a check swing. But I do think the majority of people who care about such rules — and the majority of the rules relating to the topic itself — falls in the “fewer” camp.

And to be 100% clear: my pointing this out was not borne of some “ah ha!” moment nor do I think it says anything negative about the Hall of Fame, the person who forged the plaque or anything like that. There’s no point other than to say “hey, that’s interesting.” And, obviously, I do not stand on some pedestal of grammatical superiority when I note all of this. I’m a low-A grammarian at best with tremendous holes in my game. Indeed, even my tweet pointing out this grammatical error had a typo in it.

But then again, my tweets aren’t literally forged in metal and placed on the wall of a museum for all eternity. Which is why I even brought this up to begin with.

Why Ryan Zimmerman skipped spring training

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All spring training there was at least some mild confusion about Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He played in almost no regular big league spring training games, instead, staying on the back fields, playing in simulated and minor league contests. When that usually happens, it’s because a player is rehabbing or even hiding an injury, but the Nats insisted that was not the case with Zimmerman. Not everyone believed it. I, for one, was skeptical.

The skepticism was unwarranted, as Zimmerman answered the bell for Opening Day and has played all season. As Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal writes today, it was all by design. He skipped spring training because he doesn’t like it and because he thinks it’ll help him avoid late-season injuries and slowdowns, the likes of which he has suffered over the years.

It’s hard to really judge this now, of course. On the one hand Zimmerman has started really slow this season. What’s more, he has started to show signs of warming up only in the past week, after getting almost as many big league, full-speed plate appearances under his belt as a normal spring training would’ve given him. On the other hand, April is his worst month across his entire 14-year career, so one slow April doesn’t really prove anything and, again, Zimmerman and the Nats will consider this a success if he’s healthy and productive in August and September.

It is sort of a missed opportunity, though. Players hate spring training. They really do. if Zimmerman had made a big deal out of skipping it and came out raking this month, I bet a lot more teams would be amenable to letting a veteran or three take it much more easy next spring. Good ideas can be good ideas even if they don’t produce immediately obvious results, but baseball tends to encourage a copycat culture only when someone can point to a stat line or to standings as justification.

Way to ruin it for everyone, Ryan. 😉