Today was May Bank Holiday; the sun has been shining, and spring finally seems to be here. There was not a cloud in the sky until — driving through the Nottinghamshire countryside this afternoon, listening to Radio 4’s You & Yours — something happened which shocked me to the core.
Today’s edition of You & Yours was subtitled ‘What makes a good pub?’ and presenter, Shari Vahl, was discussing this very topic with a Leeds publican by the name of Nicola Storey. Ms Storey went on to explain that the general population is now drinking less than it was a couple of years ago, something she backed up with statistics, concluding that ‘… that means we drank 138 million fewer pints in 2012 than in 2011.’ I smiled fondly at Ms Storey, as I smile fondly at all those who know the difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ — and not only know the difference academically but actually put it into practice when they speak. ‘Fewer,’ in case you were wondering, goes with countable nouns (fewer occasions, fewer friends, or — in this case — fewer pints) and ‘less’ with uncountable nouns (less time, less company, or less beer). Ms Storey didn’t wonder, however; she knew; she was straight in there with her ‘fewer pints’ without even a hint of hesitation or doubt. This woman was elevated in my eyes. I liked her. I considered her a friend, almost.
And then she betrayed me — betrayed me in the most heinous way imaginable. Almost without pausing for breath she went on to tell us that ‘…back in March, when the chancellor made his budget, he announced to cut beer duty by one pence…’ Forget the weirdness of ‘he announced to cut’ — that’s bad, but could be put down to nerves, to having started one sentence and then got side-tracked into saying something slightly different. I could forgive my new Bestie for that. What I found unpardonable was — and it pains me to type such an abomination — ‘one pence’! One… pence? Oh, Nicola, Nicky, sweetie, how could you do that to me? I was all set to veer north and head to The Mustard Pot, for that is the name of Ms Storey’s pub, and imbibe several pints of best Yorkshire ale in an attempt to make up the shortfall in publicans’ incomes left by the 138 million fewer pints that had been consumed last year.
My quondam BFF should, of course, have said ‘one penny’ — a ‘penny’ is the name of the coin, thusly labelled, and of the smallest denomination of UK currency. It has two plurals: ‘pennies’ when referring to a multiplicity of small coins and ‘pence’ when referring to more than one example of the unit of currency. Neither ‘pennies’ nor ‘pence’ can be used as singular nouns. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no beef with singular nouns ending in —ence. I do not see a fence and immediately insist it be called a ‘fenny’; nor do I recoil in horror from the synecdochically-named ‘sixpence’ or uncountable nouns like ‘independence’. But let’s be consistent, eh? The plural of ‘fence’ is ‘fences’; the plural of ‘sixpence’ is ‘sixpences’; and ‘independence’, being uncountable, has no plural. If this Storey woman (see how she’s fallen from grace?) is to be believed and ‘one pence’ is correct, then it is clearly countable, and must have the plural form ‘pences’. I shall petition the Royal Mint immediately to recast their dies and issue new coins bearing the words ‘five pences’, ‘ten pences,’ and so on.
Oh, and while I’m at it, I feel the Beatles’ back catalogue needs to be amended — ‘Penny Lane’ must be expunged and replaced by ‘Pence Lane’; The Big Bang Theory’s female sex bomb should similarly change her name; and as for the successor to the early Victorian boneshaker…