Few would argue that ...

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Sun Mar 9 10:33:15 UTC 2008

The phrase "few would argue that" appeared in the last World Wide Words
newsletter and was criticised by numerous subscribers as being either an
error ("argue" used when "dispute" was meant) or yet another example of
the dumbing-down of English that was leading to ill-thought-out, new-
fangled, ambiguous phrases like this one.

That it can be ambiguous there is no doubt, though context usually makes
it clear which version is meant. From the Guardian last October: "few
would argue that classical music still provides one of the most effective
means of teaching musical literacy"; From the Grocer in 2005: "Few would
argue that running a convenience store is an effective remedy for stress."

Though there are examples from the late 18th century, the phrase seems to
have become much more common in recent decades. Can somebody advise me:
was it always ambiguous, or has one of the two senses crept in recently
through some process of misanalysis?

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
E-mail: wordseditor at worldwidewords.org
Web: http://www.worldwidewords.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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