Paying tax(es)

« previous post | next post »

Having just posted (again) on less/fewer with plural C (count) nouns, I was primed to catch the following in Gail Collins's op-ed piece ("Sarah Palin Speaks!") in the NYT yesterday:

How many times have you heard McCain promise to slash taxes and pay for it by eliminating unnecessary programs? And who better to help carry out that agenda than the governor of a state whose residents pay less taxes than anyplace else in the union, because of their genius in making the federal government pay the tab for virtually everything?

Collins could have written pay less tax, with a M (mass) use of the lexical item TAX, or she could have written pay fewer taxes, with the modifier fewer that some usage critics insist on with plural C nouns. All three variants are attested, but not (apparently) with equal frequencies. I found Collins's pay less taxes entirely natural, indeed to be preferable to pay fewer taxes, and I would have found pay less tax also natural.

There are two points of interest here: yet another context where less is fine with plural C nouns, plus the double classification of TAX as M and C, with the result that M tax and plural C taxes overlap significantly in their meaning (a situation also seen for E-MAIL, SPAM, and some other lexical items).

A Google web search pulls up all three variants, but with very different frequencies; fewer taxes is the loser, and less tax the big winner, but less taxes is well attested:

pay fewer taxes: 10,700

pay less taxes: 83,200

pay less tax: 333,000

One cite for each:

It's official: Latin Americans pay fewer taxes than people in almost any other region of the world. (link)

Pay less taxes by using little known tax loop holes get tax relief and tax reduction by utilizing these … (link)

Ten ways to pay less tax… You've just a few weeks left of this financial year to make use of all the tax … (link)

[Clarification, added 6 September. There are, of course, more senses of tax than the one I was focusing on in this posting. I was looking at ways of expressing 'pay a smaller amount of money in tax(es)', using the verb pay. This is a tractable question; just searching on {"less tax"}, {"less taxes"}, and {"fewer taxes"} yields an enormous number of irrelevant hits, but searching on {"pay less tax"} etc. pretty much gets the good stuff.

But tax(es) can mean more things than 'amount of tax(es)'. In particular, the C noun TAX can mean 'kind or type of tax', as in "New York has 25 different taxes, but Louisiana has only 5." (This is, of course, a made-up example; the point at issue is grammatical, not factual.) So pay fewer taxes (and, for that matter, pay less taxes) could in principle mean 'pay, be subject to a smaller number of forms of taxation'. I expected to pick up a few hits for pay fewer taxes with this meaning, and maybe some for pay less taxes, but nearly all the hits seem, in context, to have the 'amount of tax(es)' interpretation.

Some correspondents have suggested that they at least partially differentiate fewer from less here, with fewer taxes meaning, for them, only 'smaller number of forms of taxation'. I wouldn't dispute these judgments, but it's clear than many speakers don't restrict fewer taxes in this way.]

A final note on anyplace in Collins's piece. MWDEU tells us that any place/anyplace is American in origin, appeared roughly at the beginning of the 20th century (first written as two words, with the one-word version gradually replacing the two-word version), and didn't turn up with any frequency in print until the 1940s, though writing handbooks criticized it from at least 1916 on (some critics objecting to it as a replacement for standard anywhere). Some sources label it as informal or colloquial, but the citations in MWDEU (including quotes from respected American writers in serious contexts over a 40-year period) suggest otherwise.


Comments are closed.