"Jonathan and me had less than the other guys!"
"Jonathan and I had fewer than the other guys," I corrected automatically.
"Whatever," said the 13-year-old, and if I didn't know him to be above such gestures, I might have suspected him of rolling his eyes. The phrase in our family for this teenage reflex is "glancing up at the ceiling and back." So far he'd resisted.
"No, really, it matters," I insisted. "If you're talking about something that can be counted individually, like dollars or pizzas, you say "fewer." If you're talking about material that comes in quantity, like sugar or fabric or money, you say 'less.'"
The boy looked at me. He asked: "Do you seriously think I care?"
"Darling, you should," I said.
"But I don't," he replied, his blue eyes betraying not a flicker of insolence. "Honestly, I don't care. No one does."
"Ah, but they do!" I said, triumphantly. "People do notice. They just won't tell you that they notice. And when you grow up they'll think less of you if you speak poorly or ungrammatically. But the world isn't going to correct you. That's why you have parents."
At this point the boy sighed deeply, smiled at me almost with pity, and glanced up at the ceiling and back.
"And yet," he said smiling, leaving unspoken another iteration of, "I don't care."
Of all the thankless tasks involved in raising children, can there be any more boring than tweaking their grammar and speech?
It's not necessarily boring to the person doing the correcting, but it is, apparently, unbelievably tedious and irksome to the young person receiving improvement.
There a child might be, spilling over excitedly about something that has happened, when the cold clammy hand of correction falls on a perfectly lively anecdote.
"So, she was, like, "Yikes!" And the other girl was, like, "Ha-ha!" and the rest of us were, like, "Ooooh, you are so in trouble!"
What are parents to do? We don't want to be boring. We don't want to be cold, clammy conversation killers.
But, frankly, it's our job to turn out reasonably articulate children. So if they're using "like" when they mean, "said," well, surely we need to act. Don't we?
"Instead of "like," you should use a verb," I told the almost-9-year-old recently. "Like "said" or "cried" or "yelled."
"You just said "like."
"Yes, but I wasn't using it as a verb. I was using it as a preposition -- er, at least, I'm pretty sure in that context it's a preposition. ..."
"Anyway, "like" is so a verb! As in, "I like birds!"
"True, but it's not a verb if you say, "She's, like, "Look, a bird!"
"But that's how people talk," the child said, in genuine perplexity.
"Well, they shouldn't," I said pettishly.
I'll admit it: For the time being, I was beaten. Moreover, I had even managed to bore myself.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at ">email@example.com.