I got told off by a guy at work once for saying “We have less students this year”.
“for god’s sake” he said “fewer!”
Especially shameful, supposedly because I’m an English teacher and so should know better. But doesn’t the fact I had lived a good thirty years without knowing better, not perhaps tell us something about this word? In fact, it’s completely possible that large numbers of people will live and die in English without knowing that they are getting it ‘wrong’. And the people they are talking to often don’t know that they are also getting it ‘wrong’. In fact the only people who are bothered seem to be the ones getting it right.
|Yeah Jane Moore! You idiot!
And my god are they bothered. People actually get very worked up about this (check the tweets, right). You can read blogs about just how bothered here, here, here and here. Or here, here, or here. And some more here and here. People really hate this.
So what are the rules?
GrammarGirl, (who I talked about here) gives us this handy guide and it’s actually fairly straightforward. Countable nouns use “fewer” and uncountable nouns use “less”. If that isn’t clear then look at this table:
Time, money, bread
Students, problems potatoes
Simply put, things that you can count, (1 monkey, 2 squirrels, 3 turnips, etc) should be used with ‘fewer’, with other things, like money, (
moneys) you should use ‘less’. Simple really, -so why can’t thick thickos like me (and supermarkets) get this into their thick thicko skulls?
Well when we examine GrammarGirl’s advice we find this interesting note:
There are exceptions to these rules
Oh yes?….do go on!
for example, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance (2, 3). For example, you could say, “That wedding reception lasted less than two hours. I hope they paid the band less than $400.” So keep in mind that time, money, and distance are different, but if you stick with the quick and dirty tip that less is for mass nouns and fewer is for count nouns, you’ll be right most of the time
Ah-ha! so things are not actually that straight-forward. I don’t want to be right “most” of the time dammit, I want to right all of the time! OK, so just use “fewer” with count nouns, except for time money and distance…right? right, I’ve got it!
But what about weight? Can I say “I weigh 5kg less than last year” or should it be “I weigh 5kg fewer?” The latter sounds ugly so I’m going to go ahead and add weight to those exceptions. OK so, time money, distance and weight, got it!
Well not quite, it also seems that you can’t use “fewer” with singular count nouns. For example “that’s one less thing to worry about.” should be wrong but no one say “one fewer thing to worry about”. So is this another exception or do we have to make some ugly compromise like “Now I don’t have so much to worry about”And what about “less” in the phrases “more or less”? Surely regardless of what number was being referred to a person would always say less, like “I ate 10 of those cakes, more or less”, but they would never say “more or fewer”. So set phrases seem to be exempt as well. (This is turning out to be as useful as the I before E rule.)
|“Illiterate” signs? Hmm
Don’t even get me started on the mind-boggling world of “least number/amount, fewest number/amount”. I’ve never heard anyone get upset about this, but a Google search shows a huge state of disarray. If you’re going to get upset at supermarket signs, then don’t go anywhere near this one. workers in the UK take the least number of paid holidays” says the daily mail, noting later in the same article that they take the fewest. If ‘holidays’ are countable then it should be “fewest”, no? And least number? Shouldn’t it be ‘least amount’ and ‘fewest number’? or just fewest? (head asplodes)
An important question that the people who get angry about this never seem to ask is, -why does English even need two words for things being smaller in number/amount when we manage to get by fine with one word for things being larger in number? No one has a problem saying “more money, more friends, more time and more stupid grammar rules.” No one gets confused and feels the need to invent a word to fill that gap. So why do people get so upset about this? Why the mindless observance of this useless rule?
Some people might say that we need to retain the historically correct rules of English. That’s a nice idea but as the Motivated Grammar blog notes, this so-called rule has only been around for a few hundred years:
As it turns out, this whole notion that fewer is countable and less is uncountable has been traced back to 1770 by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. And it wasn’t a rule back then, but rather a preference of a single author, Robert Baker.
That’s right, if you’re insisting on this in 2012 then you’re basically peddling the preferences of some eighteenth century dude. You’re getting angry over something someone 200 years ago didn’t like the sound of. You might imagine yourself the arbiter of “good grammar” but you might as well be running around shouting “don’t use the word bully, Jonathan Swift didn’t like it!”
The earliest example of someone getting it “wrong” was Alfred
from Batman the Great who in 888ad wrote “Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit yereccan mayon” or “with less words or with more, whether we may prove it.”. However I don’t think that people are concerned with historical value at all, they are concerned, as always where language is involved, with showing that they are more educated, more discerning and thus better than those oiks who get it wrong. Thus, like so much maven prescriptivism, this is yet another foundationless linguistic Shibboleth.
If we listen to these kinds of people we’ll end up with supermarket signs saying “10 items or fewer”, teachers saying “Write an essay of five-hundred words or fewer” and people being forced to say “that’s one fewer thing to worry about” and let’s be honest, that just sounds crap. Ignore these pedants, and if they insist then tell them that you couldn’t care fewer.
* Thanks to Florentina Taylor for pointing out that there is a difference between the adverbial use of “less” and the adjectival use.