Mighty Red Pen

February 9, 2008

Less vs fewer

Overseen on a napkin at Starbucks today:

less-is-more3.jpg

I like this for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is a chance to share my newest usage guide.

Okay, here’s the deal: they wish they had written fewer napkins. According to Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words,

The generally cited rule is that less applies to quantity and fewer to number. A rougher but more helpful guide is to use less with singular nouns (less money, less sugar) and fewer with plural nouns (fewer houses, fewer doctors).

A girl can never have too many usage guides, don’t you agree?

9 Comments »

  1. A fellow editor shared with me a somewhat profane variation of Bryson’s mnemonic: “Less shit. Fewer turds.”

    Yeah, you’re welcome.

    Comment by cinetrix — February 9, 2008 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  2. I’m disappointed in you. Normally you’re pretty good about distinguishing between fictional rules for the sake of rules and real grammar. You’ll have to invent a time machine and go back to the Middle English period, because “less” with counting nouns has been commonly used since then.

    Comment by Danny — February 9, 2008 @ 3:46 pm | Reply

  3. Oh dear, I hate to be disappointing. Well, I would definitely agree that less in places where fewer is more traditional is commonly used and accepted. No doubt. However, I would still say that if this particular copy had passed by my editorial desk this way, I would have changed it from “less” to “fewer.”

    But you’re right, I could have been a little more rigorous in my discussion. For example, Columbia Guide to Standard English says this, which I think speaks to both our our viewpoints:

    “Standard English still usually requires this basic pattern: use less with mass nouns and fewer with plural count nouns, as in less employment, fewer jobs. But Common English—and even some Standard—increasingly uses less with plurals, especially after than. Edited English still follows the basic pattern rigorously, however, except in a few idiomatic locutions, as in in ten words or less; in certain phrases involving money, such as less than a thousand dollars; and in some phrases involving plural measures of time and distance or other measures, also with than (less than four days, less than ten miles, less than five cups of coffee). Even in these, Edited English prefers fewer, and for many conservatives, the use of less where fewer is expected remains a strong shibboleth.”

    American Heritage says this:

    “The traditional rule holds that fewer should be used for things that can be counted (fewer than four players), while less should be used with mass terms for things of measurable extent (less paper; less than a gallon of paint). However, less is used in some constructions where fewer would occur if the traditional rule were being followed. Less than can be used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: less than three weeks; less than $400; less than 50 miles. Less is sometimes used with plural nouns in the expressions no less than (as in No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter) and or less (as in Give your reasons in 25 words or less).”

    So what I’m seeing is that it’s acceptable to be flexible with the less versus fewer rule in some cases, which I can of course totally live with, but I’m not seeing that this would be one of those cases. But these are only a couple of sources, so I’m interested in what others think.

    Comment by mightyredpen — February 9, 2008 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

  4. That commercial for the HPV vaccine drives me nuts! “Be one less.” Terrible, terrible marketing campaign.

    Comment by Gopher — February 9, 2008 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

  5. A friend of mine and I use to collect examples of plural count nouns that underwent some operation and became mass nouns. A quick example: Pig to pork.

    It gets trickier once you run out of animals to kill for food.

    Comment by David — February 11, 2008 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  6. Ai! If they had started using smaller napkins and this slogan was meant to let customers know that there was less napkin, it would have been fine. That’s how I read it, at first. But fewer definitely makes more sense, in this sentence.

    Comment by legbamel — July 19, 2008 @ 8:53 am | Reply

  7. My grammatical Geiger counter sang to me, this morning, when a colleague stated, “It was fewer than 80 degrees when I left the house this morning.”

    While I am generally unable to explain why a particular grammatical construction is inappropriate, I am nonetheless, often correct about such things (in my own so very humble opinion).

    I would have sworn on two Bibles and a Pentateuch that the proper phrasing of that comment would be “less than 80 degrees.”

    However, in reviewing the preceding comments, I come to the conclusion that I might be wrong in this case. Apparently, I am a less than trustworthy judge of proper use of “fewer versus less” in common English usage.

    Would you, dear expert(s), care to correct my misapprehension, confirm my initial impression or, perhaps, split the difference?

    Thanks

    Comment by glenn s michaels — September 22, 2010 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

  8. Maybe this real-life example will help to keep the distinction between “less” and “fewer” in mind: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/less-or-fewer/

    Comment by Andreas Moser — June 16, 2011 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

  9. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage on less/fewer:
    http://www.ldc.upenn.edu//myl/llog/MW_LessFewer.pdf

    Comment by goofy — June 17, 2011 @ 1:25 pm | Reply


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