“for god’s sake” he said “fewer!”
|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?
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
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!
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)
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.
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.
* Thanks to Florentina Taylor for pointing out that there is a difference between the adverbial use of “less” and the adjectival use.