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"Less" or "fewer"

Is there still a difference?

by Tim North

A correspondent of mine recently had this to say: I'm appalled at the increasing use of less when fewer would be more appropriate. I was taught that if you could count them (people at a meeting) you used "fewer"; if you couldn't count it (sugar) you used "less."

It seems that the trend is to use less for everything. ... I can't wrap myself around using "less" when "fewer" seems so right to me. She asked me to comment.

The traditional rule is indeed to use "fewer" with things that can be counted.

For example:-

  • Fewer than ten minutes remain.
  • Fewer people go to church now.
  • Fewer than a hundred tickets were sold.
  • Drink fewer glasses of alchohol.

Traditional usage says that we use "less" in other situations.

For example:-

  • Less time remains.
  • Church attendence is less than it was.
  • Ticket sales were less than last year.
  • Drink less alchohol.

It gets more complex though. The American Heritage Book of English Usage has this to add:-

You can use "less than" before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: "less than three weeks", "less than $400", "less than 50 miles". www.bartleby.com

Still with us? Heritage continues:-

You can sometimes [When exactly? - TN] use "less" with plural nouns in the expressions "no less than" and "or less". Thus you can say "No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter" and "Give your reasons in 25 words or less".

Who's still clear on when to use "fewer" and when to use "less"? Not many huh? I'm not surprised. Neither am I. :-)

So now we come to the meat of the issue. Has this traditional usage become too complex to bother with? Can a distinction that's too subtle or too complex ever be more trouble than it's worth?

Now that's a genuinely interesting linguistic question. (Okay, I can see you rolling your eyes at that. It's actually a remarkably *dull* question for anyone who has a life, but we're talking about linguists and grammarians here!)

Rather than get into a knock-down debate on the subject, let me just say this. Regardless of any linguistic reasons for keeping such a distinction, actual, day-to-day usage *is* changing. Fewer (or is that "less"?) people are making such distinctions.

Let's use Google to obtain some insight. In each of the pairs below, the top one is (in most contexts) the usage preferred by traditional grammar. Let's see how frequent each usage is:-

"fewer people": 282,000 (72%)
"less people": 111,000 (28%)

"fewer accidents": 15,300 (80%)
"less accidents": 3,890 (20%)

"fewer computers": 3,130 (55%)
"less computers": 2,580 (45%)

"fewer days": 42,400 (75%)
"less days": 14,000 (25%)

Traditional grammar is still winning this one, but for how long?

Language changes, and it does this whether we want it to or not. Just eavesdrop on a group of teenagers. Do you understand everything they say? No. Neither do I. Neither did our parents.

Language changes, and one of the ways it changes is that people get lazy about pedantic distinctions. I'm not saying that it's right or desirable, merely that it's inevitable.


About the Author: You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's much applauded range of e-books. FREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS are available, and all books come with a money-back guarantee. http://www.BetterWritingSkills.com
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