When I was an English teacher in China, I was asked by a student why we say 'two million' rather than 'two millions'. His logic was sound: two of something makes it plural and plurals usually end with an 's'. It's never satisfying to then have to tell a student that he'll need to just ignore logic to learn English properly. But what if he and every other student simply ignored me?

The hideous vulgarism

Of course, one classroom isn't enough to affect a change, but history is full of examples of language being shaped by what were once considered mistakes. Until the twentieth century, the use of 'contact' as a verb instead of a noun (as in, 'to contact his office' rather than 'to make physical contact') seemed to send linguistic purists around the bend. In 1931, for instance, Western Union executive F. W. Lienau circulated a memo to staff stating that "somewhere there cumbers this fair earth with his loathsome presence a man who, for the common good, should have been destroyed in early childhood. He is the originator of the hideous vulgarism of using contact as a verb."

If we could contact Lienau from beyond the grave, he'd probably be horrified to learn that his most hated verb is found on just about every English-language website in the world (or he'd ask what a website is). And it's possible to sympathise with him somewhat, albeit not on the part about 'destroying' a child. As a proofreader, some degree of pedantry about language is probably a requisite. Confusion between 'their' and 'there' may be common even among native English speakers, but nobody would dream of leaving such a mix-up in a text. For certain other examples, however, it feels like we're King Canute fruitlessly trying to hold back the tide.

That mistake

In the modern day, the poster child for this is probably 'less' versus 'fewer', specifically the application of 'less' to countable terms. "We won because we made less mistakes than they did" is a mistake, but is it really worth correcting it when this kind of usage has become so omnipresent? The supermarket chain Tesco found a different solution altogether: in response to a campaign to change their checkout signs from "10 items or less" to "10 items or fewer", they opted for "up to 10 items" instead. Funnily enough, there was no formal distinction between 'fewer' and 'less' until 1770, when grammarian Robert Baker wrote, "'No Fewer than a Hundred' appears to me, not only more elegant than 'No less than a Hundred', but more strictly proper." His preference came to viewed as a rule, yet has come to be followed less and less often.

The particular bugbear for me is 'which' and 'that', such as changing "the sentence which the teacher asked me to correct was too hard" to "the sentence that the teacher asked me to correct was too hard." But it can feel harsh to pick up a second-language speaker on this when I know that examples like the former are often written and read by native English speakers without a second's thought. On the flipside, I avoid the Oxford comma on the (meagre) grounds that I find it aesthetically displeasing, only using it when necessary to avoid ambiguity – something advocated by most British style guides but that I've been told is a mistake by those who favour comma consistency at all costs. Given all the ambiguities in English, there's no getting away from personal preference in the work of a proofreader.

An ancient urge

It may well be that simplification – such as treating words synonymously – is a natural urge in language learning. There has been plenty of research and speculation, for instance, on whether the oldest forms of English were simplified as they were learned by speakers of the Celtic languages and Norse dialects, such as dropping the various forms of 'the' still found in languages like German and Dutch. Were there Anglo-Saxons who always gently corrected Norse traders when they accidentally said 'þæt' instead of 'sēo'? Maybe they also felt like they were trying to hold back the tide.

Still, if you're the type of person to agonise over the likes of 'less', 'fewer', 'that' or 'which', you're going to keep correcting them until the day that the audience actively perceives them as wrong. It's a fairly thankless task but, as I mentioned, pedantry comes with the profession. I don't mind personal preference playing a role, within reason, in how a text is edited as long as things conform to a client's stylistic guidelines. And if they do have clear guidance on what they want (regardless of if it's technically wrong), who are we to argue? It means fewer thinking from us.

- Josh