Needing to do A Few Things

By Maeve Maddox

A reader writes:

My son is driving me crazy!!!! He consistently says ” I need to do a few stuff. ”  I reply that he should properly say ” I need to do a few things ” or ” I need to do some stuff “.  I know my options are fine, but my question is whether his version is also proper.  Please help us !!

Before this reader’s question I was blissfully unaware of the expression “a few stuff.” I’ve tried to track it down. It brought up 2,070,000 Google hits, such things as:

Even if I’m leaving my flat in one week, for the next two weeks, I shall buy a few stuff on saturday.

Hi just need to rant about a few stuff…

I haven’t been able to trace a dialect origin for this nonstandard construction. The only uses of it I’ve found so far are in amateurish blogs and reader comments. I assume that it’s an example of teen slang intended to infuriate adult speakers. It certainly pinches my grammar nerve.

As an uncountable noun, stuff originally referred to “quilted material worn under chain mail.” The meaning was extended to mean “material for working in a trade.” The very broad sense of “matter of an unspecified kind” dates from 1580.

To the reader whose son insists on saying “a few stuff,” I can only say that this too shall pass–but probably only if you stop letting your annoyance show.

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13 Responses to “Needing to do A Few Things”

  • Brad K.

    So, then should I consider stuffed grape leaves and stuffed cabbage to be culinary constructs, mimicking chain mail? I would think the stuff in the middle would be the stuff stuffed in, like turkey stuffing that we don’t actually cook inside the turkey anymore because it often doesn’t get cooked completely enough to always be safe to eat but the recipe used to be stuffed in the turkey so we call it stuffing.

    I didn’t stuff too many words and phases into a sentence, so it might be considered a run-on sentence, did I?

    Calling the stuff that gets stuffed inside something the stuffing, or just stuff, wouldn’t always be the case. When we stuff a ballot box with bogus and improper ballots, we call the stuff that the ballot box was stuffed with ballots. Duh! Otherwise it would obvious to the casual observer that the box had been stuffed. But since ballot look-alikes were used to stuff the ballot box, the ballot box won’t *look* like it was stuffed. At first glance.

    I might compare A Few Stuff to phrases like The Bee’s Knees and Root Toot Tootie, but that might get stuffy. Excuse me please. My nose has become stuffed up, and I need to stuff my saline nasal mist up my nose and spray, and deal with a few resulting stuff. Achoo. (I love that name – Tamora Pierce used Achoo as a name for a scent hound in her second Beka Cooper book, Bloodhound, because the dog would sneeze when it had the scent and was ready to follow that scent. But I digress.)

  • Taylor

    Oh… that phrase really made me cringe. I’m a teenager, but I would never inflict that grammatical catastrophe on anyone.

  • mike

    I believe he may be substituting stuff for a word he doesn’t want to use in front of his mother- s**t.

  • david

    The whole world (at least the junior section) seems intent on rewriting standard grammatical constructs. If one queries their words, they reply ‘well, you know what I mean’. Do they know what they mean and just reinvent language to seem trendy, or are they just lacking in education I wonder?
    I am sure I heard this in the current ‘Carriers’ film preview:
    ‘he’s got it, doesn’t he’. I am loth to put a question mark at the end.
    Coherent language was one of the key factors in the succesful evolution of homo sapiens sapiens. Maybe forthcoming generations will learn to communicate with clicks and grunts, just to be trendy.

  • Sally

    Clicks and grunts..thanks for making my day, and quite possibly my week! I grew up with a grammar strictarian (my term) and I appreciate my dad for every gentle and sensible correction. He’s the reason I am a writer today.

    As far as ‘teenspeak’, it could be worse….with kids, it’s better to major on the major and let the minor go.

    I’ve heard more than one network newscaster use the word ‘stuff’ and never appropriately. ‘What about the robbery and all the other stuff going on in that area?’

    However, what makes me cringe more than ‘stuff’ is the inexcusable use of ‘need’.

    For example, in a recipe: You ‘need’ to add one cup of cooled milk.

    Or to a child: You need to pick up your toys before we can go.

    What’s wrong with a simple statement such as: “Please pick up your toys.’

    I think we’re all caught up in the mish-mosh of having nothing to say, so we add extra words to make our conversations sound….sound…..(heavy sighs….)

    Sally

  • Maeve

    Mike,
    Even if he is, that noun is also uncountable!
    🙂

  • david

    Argh! – just copied this from the BBC website:

    “This is the second such freezer,” explained Martin Zell, Esa’s head of ISS Utilisation.

    “This first one is already up there since three years and working extremely well.

  • Stephen Thorn

    It sounds to me as though the term “stuff” in the phrase “a few stuff” is a laziness-inspired contracton. After all, the term “foodstuffs” is correct and acceptable English (albeit a bit dated, perhaps), so it may be a corruption of that usage.

    It still grates on the nerves, though. Ugh!

  • Brad K.

    @ david,
    “Coherent language was one of the key factors in the succesful evolution of homo sapiens. ”

    I don’t think I would put it that way.

    I would think that striving for precision in language usage, grammar, and content is something that evolved with scope of effect. That is, I expect an encyclopedia entry to be correct – it should stand for decades, with no opportunity to correct mistakes. A blog entry should be written as if the Library of Congress were collecting them for posterity (now, isn’t that a scary use of tax dollars, and yes, they do have a couple of blog archive programs going).

    Comments on a blog don’t get a shot at read-overs, reviews, or corrections. We see someone miss the accepted number of “s”s in successful, and continue on.

    I would contend that there is an element of conspicuous consumption in perfect grammar. That allowing time to study grammar rules, and time to critique and improve grammar and language usage, requires the luxury of time and effort diverted from providing one’s family with food, shelter, and security.

    As for the “well, you know what I mean” phrase, I heard that from my parents 45 years ago. It is not new, it has nothing to do with age. In any field of endeavor their are laymen, craftsmen, and master craftsmen – those that are not trained or educated in the topic or craft, those that are trained, and those that have achieved a high degree of mastery. For the lay person, as long as they understand the meaning of what they wanted to say, the assumption is that their communication is sufficient to the purpose.

    What is more important than those that don’t care about precision of language, is that by example and interest, those that are highly skilled help keep accuracy high and constantly improving.

    Learning the distinction between precision and accuracy was a big shocker for me, in high school. I can state that my Sharpie is just under 5 1/2 inches, or even more than 5 inches. That is much less precise than saying it is 6.4062 inches, which would be a precise measurement, just under 6 13/32 inches. Precise, but over an inch worse in accuracy.

    @ Sally,

    I find that new parents are admonished to avoid confusing polite requests to their children, with clear instructions that will be enforced if need be.

    “You need to pick up your toys before we can go.” would more properly be stated, “I need you to pick up your toys. We won’t go (or do anything else) until you do.” Where you don’t have the responsibility and authority to train – as a parent, teacher,, or supervisor would, your discourse is based on polite speech and interchange of respect. Where your authority will be enforced, though, your question or request invites other responses than obedience. Where a polite request is made when an instruction is clearly given, an implied lie – that the respondent has a choice – is made.

    It might make sense for a parent to feel that their need to have the child obey, and pick up the toys in preparation for leaving, transmits a need for the child to obey this and other instructions. But assuming the transmission of that need makes for muddy communication – the child might not feel, at the moment, any pressing need for anything to change or happen. It isn’t clear that the parent’s assumption that the child needs to obey is true for the child, at the moment. Relating “before we can go” to picking up toys and to needs is assumed but not evident in the sentence.

    “Pick up your toys, please,” would be a position of weakness. The child hears the request part, and understands that this isn’t a command that will be enforced. That will be several requests later in an extended conversation. The military portrays the correct form of command, which agrees with voice commands for draft horses. “John, pick up the toys in the dining room.” “Bonnie, whoa.” “Platoon, halt.” The form is to identify who is being tasked – the one or group being addressed – and the instruction.

  • Erica Richards

    Unfortunately, I don’t think “this too shall pass”. The trend I’m seeing is that poor grammar habits are not only perpetuated into adulthood, but can be treated as an accepted form of speech used on TV or the radio. I suspect that eventually it is accepted as proper grammar and that is how language evolves. The most notable example is the current vernacular use of disrespect as a verb, as in “he disrespected me”. Sounds like nails on a blackboard to me, however, it’s all over the media.

  • Sally

    Brad, I understand what you’re saying, but I raised two children to be successful adults and never would have said ‘I need you to pick up your toys, please.’

    I find it very offensive if someone uses the ‘I need you to’ phrase to me, and I believe a child would find it equally offensive (even if they aren’t of age to comprehend or react to something offensive). I also find it offensive, and perhaps weak, to use ‘please’ at the end of the sentence, almost as an afterthought.

    I’ll stick with, ‘Please pick up your toys. We can’t go until you do.’

    Period. End of discussion. I see nothing weak about a direct, simple statement.

    I train dogs and horses, and don’t ‘need’ them to do anything. The reason the animal’s name is stated at the beginning of the phrase is simply to gain its attention. After that comes the command, followed by whatever lesson or correction is necessary.

    Wishy-washy, pleading statements usually result in wishy-washy results – with adults, children and animals.

    Sally

  • Peter

    This first one is already up there since three years

    German speakers often use that construct, though.

    (The most confusing misuse of English by German speakers, IMO, is the use of “must not” to mean the opposite of “must”; i.e., “are not required to” — an English speaker saying “you must not touch this” is forbidding it, but a German speaker may well be saying “you can touch it if you want, but you don’t have to!”)

  • PreciseEdit

    Brad–Your first comment was very clever.

    My suspicion is that “a few stuff” is not intentional, much like using an apostrophe S for plurals is often not intentional (or, worse, an apostrophe S for third person singular verbs). If it is not intentional, it may not go away on its own.

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