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Less and Fewer

I’m always pretty meticulous about my use of “fewer” and “less” but was surprised today to read that usage guru…

I’m always pretty meticulous about my use of “fewer” and “less” but was surprised today to read that usage guru Bryan Garner is almost permissive (and at least understanding) of the tendency to mix them up, saying that calling the common mixup an error is a bit strong. He goes on to explain that grocery stores have been largely responsible for widespread substitution of “less” for “fewer.” This will come as no surprise to any usage-minded folk who avoid the express lane at their store if only to avoid tacitly consenting to the phrase “15 items or less.”

So, maybe this is a losing battle for those who favor traditional usage, but I think it’s interesting to peek into what the traditional usage dictates.

“Fewer” is appropriate when writing or speaking about plural nouns; so you have fewer marbles and teeth and Persian rugs. “Less” is appropriate when writing about units of measurement, singular nouns, or (quoting Garner here) “count nouns so great as to render the idea of individual increments meaningless.” So you’ll write about less water (a singular, un-numerable noun), less than X ounces of something (a unit of measure), and less money. This last case is a little tricky, as you could easily talk about having fewer dollar bills or coins. The idea is that when you’re comparing vague or uncounted, collective things, it’s usually appropriate to use “less,” while when comparing countable finite items, “fewer” is better.

Even with those rules in place, Garner concedes that it’s sometimes a tough call. Comparing percentages can be dicey, for example, because in some cases either “fewer” or “less” could work. In such cases, it may be best to choose “less” as the less formal option.

If you’re a grammar and usage nerd, Garner’s book really is a must-have. I wrote about it a few weeks ago and have probably used it on a nearly daily basis ever since, sometimes to guide my writing and sometimes just for fun (once or twice even to settle a bet). I think I’ve made less fewer mistakes as a result.

42 Comments

  1. Some phrases using “less” (for instance, “State your position in 25 words or less”) has been in general currency for a long time and should be considered correct usage and exceptions to the general rule of less vs. fewer. But I’m surprised that this less/fewer business is STILL a talking point even today, mainly because I hardly see that problem anymore in my reads.

    1. At some point, I trained myself to have as strong a reaction against this as I do to mixing of case in first person pronouns (so fingernails on a chalkboard). If you’re using “less” with a number, it just sounds wrong to me. I know, I know, it’s pretty widely accepted now, but I wish it weren’t. And it’s not even that I wish to be pedantic — I just learned so long ago to flinch at this one that it really bugs me. My reaction to it turns out to be similar to how I react when I hear someone singing off key, by which I mean to say that I don’t form a judgment (I’m not much of a singer myself), but it sort of hurts my ears.

      1. You trained yourself to have this strong reaction? Now that I’ve read that, I’m no longer surprised that I felt you’re a classic example of operant conditioning for object/space intervention. (My first degree was in psychology and statistics.)

      2. Let’s not be quite so literal. :) I didn’t undertake a systematic program to train myself (a little bell ringing every time a usage error occurred!). But I learned the rules, followed them, and began to notice when they weren’t followed. If you hear somebody say “me talk pretty one day,” you instinctively know it’s wrong because you’ve been grown accustomed through use to know that it’s incorrect. It just sounds wrong. I just happen to have a filter (along with many others) for more “wrong” things than some people, and this one really stands out for me.

      3. Of course I’m not taking you in a literal sense. Like you, I learnt the rules, did the grammar thing along with Latin and Greek in school to the point of having to write latinate or grecian English for schoolwork (this was back in the Sixties in the UK), and also notice things that aren’t right. But I reckon the main difference between us (and some others) is that some things sound wrong to you yourselves but sound *not right* to me. There is a fine line of difference between wrong and not right. A case in point is that famous “10 items or less” business in the supermarkets. It IS grammatically wrong, but in the context of supermarket phraseology and conventional usage, it is good enough. (Actually, there are technical reasons for using ‘less’ in that phrase, but it’s too hard to explain here.) If I were to be literal-minded grammatically, the only logical choice would be to phrase that as “Under 10 items only” – which, by the way, is the preferred phraseology to use for emergency situations. There are always ways to recast sentences.

      4. I think that quibbling over “wrong” vs. “not right” is making a distinction without a real difference in this casual discussion. I also feel like you sort of have it in for me, which is ok, though of course not my preference. In none of what I post here do I mean to make any value judgments. I like language and enjoy discussing the rules (both their legitimate uses and their failings), but while I do write about how some would say the language ought to be used, I’m not really a prescriptivist myself. People have responded well to my writing about the rules, though, so I keep at it.

        With respect to the technical appropriateness within supermarket parlance of “less,” I’d actually be curious to learn the technical issue that you mentioned, and this surely seems as appropriate a thread as any. If you’re game, I’m all ears. My sense is that it’s generally just that people making the signs don’t know the rule, but if there’s a legitimate technical reason, I’d be eager to learn about it. I don’t like “under” as a replacement, but that’s likely just a personal preference and not a codified usage nit. It sounds “less right” (but not “wrong” and not exactly “not right”) to me.

      5. Trust me, I don’t have it in for you. You allow people like me to pick your brains in good cheer, and that’s why I subscribe to your blog. Heaven knows there aren’t many like you who let others pick their brains.

        About the supermarket phraseology, I’ll try to cut down a long story. Basically, it rests on the number of syllables for speedier understanding (‘digestion’) – you can already guess, fewer syllables = quicker understanding. If memory serves (this was like 30 years ago when I learnt this), the research behind syllables/understanding was done mainly for the military just after WW1 – if memory serves, many servicemen couldn’t handle instructions for operating the artillery pieces and ordnance handling. The more advanced research was carried out during the WW2 (in the USA) when the weapon systems (ostensibly) became more complex. After the war, the food industry and supermarkets picked on the the research to deal with increased food demand and also to speed up the cashier throughput. People being as they usually are, the 10-items-or-less phraseology was found to have the best ‘performance’ – although the military preferred the under-10-items-only phraseology because servicemen are generally used to ‘only’ when receiving patrol orders.

        Best I could to summarise.

        BTW, no offence meant.

      6. I’m wondering if it might be a good idea for me to actually write a piece about this “[n] items or less” matter and the research/reasons behind it to put the matter to rest. But it has been such a long time ago that I learnt about it, and I reckon just gathering the information might end up a major project for me.

    2. Being in common usage doesn’t make it any less grammatically incorrect. It really grates on me and it sounds wrong.

  2. I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi, but I tend to give blog authors quite a bit of slack, as I believe content trumps form and I would prefer people write rather than withhold their knowledge for fear of ridicule. Thanks for pointing out Garner’s book. I still defer to Stunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” for the most part, but will definitely check out your suggestion.

      1. I think educating others on the correct use of words to convey meaning unambiguously is a good thing, Daryl. Keep it up! It drives me crazy when someone (quite possibly my wife) uses a completely inappropriate word or a nonsensical sentence and, having the error pointed out, then complains I’m being too much like a lawyer. Words, like numbers, do have meaning.

        Blogging, however, needs to be a bit more free-form, IMO. Besides, sometimes it’s done sort of as free association and, again, I’d rather peeps are given some slack to communicate their thoughts.

    1. :) Garner is a proponent of Strunk & White too. In at least one source Garner recommends that writers “study not just good writing, but also good books on writing.” His list of “good books on writing” includes Strunk & White, as well as one Garner book and Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,”* among others.
      * mentioned here because I am a fan of it !

  3. I really don’t care what kind of a guru or writing star this guy is — ’19 items or less’ is wrong, and will always be wrong. I don’t stop people on the street to correct them, but I got one grocery store to change their signs to
    ’10 items or fewer.’

    1. I’m with you on this. Over-attention often leads to false alarms (such as the proverbial example of “a firm believer that” vs. “a firm believer in the idea that”).

    1. Shame that few writers actually want to go the extra mile to write for dyslexics – I mean, written in ways that help dyslexics to read. I tried to get into that area many years ago, but I became a lawyer instead.

  4. The English language changes. When more people spell a word or use a word in a new way, becomes correct. when fewer peeps r usin the words in the classical use of a few years ago, becomes obsolete.
    ur fightin a losin battle.

  5. I am a Bryan Garner groupie myself. You may be “surprised” by his permissive attitude toward the less v fewer debate; I am disillusioned! :) Seriously, thank you for another thought-provoking post.

  6. As someone who has been a stickler for correct usage of the English language, I’m trying not to be frustrated since I believe we need to accept that the battle is already lost. Good post with interesting comments.

  7. ” Less” and “fewer”……both these words are relative and directly proportionate to a human being”s perception of his or her levels of contentment. I can have three cars and “less” than someone who has five. I can also have “fewer” friends but may be richer than those who have many but not a single one close to the heart. Quantification through these words can be, at best, only limited and not indicators of happiness in the long run.

  8. Reblogged this on Cheryl Andrews and commented:
    Daryl L. Houston discusses current and traditional usage of “Fewer” and “Less”… which side are you on? Daryl also recommends a must read book by Bryan Garner if you a grammar nerd.

  9. I do believe that this shouldn’t be an issue after all -if we are always open to learning new things everyday…. I had my dose of learning this difference between use of “less-fewer” thing when I had my tutorial time with my 7 yr old daughter in her English subject…..the best thing: application of what has been learned.

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