Grammar Wednesday!

Less vs. Fewer

In order to understand whether to use “less” or “fewer,” one must first understand the difference between count and non-count nouns:

A count noun is a noun which refers to things that exist as countable entities – you can point to these things and, theoretically, at least, count them. Boy, ocean, pen, house and Godiva truffles are all countable nouns:

“I saw the boy playing in the sandbox.” – how many boys? You can count them and say.

“I ate the Godiva truffles for lunch.” – how many truffles? Why, all of them, thank you very much!

Count nouns can be made plural and can exist either as a group – the truffles – or as a single entity – the boy.

A non-count noun is a noun which refers to things that can’t be counted, but which are things nonetheless. Weather, milk, snow, money, grass, and furniture are all examples of non-count nouns:

“The weather has been breezy and cold lately.”

“I prefer to make my hot cocoa with milk.”

Non-count nouns are not made plural – we don’t say things like “The weathers” or “the milks.”

Recognize that some words belong to both classes – “love” can refer to a person and, when it does, it becomes a countable noun that one can make plural; “I’ve had many loves in my life, but none like you” is an example of “love” behaving as a countable noun. “He took her love and handed her back a shattered heart” is an example”love” behaving like a non-count noun. Also understand that we can count glasses of milk or blades of grass, but not milk or grass themselves.

Quantifying the different types of nouns is where we run into problems with less and fewer.

When talking about a non-count noun, use less:

I wish we had less snow in February.

Susan had less money than Jack did, so he paid for lunch.

There seems to be less foliage on the trees this spring than last.

Use fewer when talking about countable nouns;

This check-out lane is for ten items or fewer.

The restaurant has fewer customers during dinner than they serve at lunch.

Because of budget cuts and staff reductions, the college accepted 2,000 fewer students this year.

Get it?

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5 Comments

Filed under Grammar

5 responses to “Grammar Wednesday!

  1. Wow! I’ve been doing this wrong my whole life!!

    Good to know….

  2. PS: I suppose that sentence should say, “I’ve been doing this incorrectly my whole life” ?

    Right?

  3. I disagree with some of the points of the above article:

    – Just because it’s “more natural and less stilted” to him to say ‘less’ doesn’t make it correct

    – This makes no sense at all: “The key, as far as I’m concerned, is to realize that it’s quite valid to think of ‘5 items or less’ to imply an ellipsis:
    “5 items or less… [than that amount of shopping]”

    and in that it’s no different from any number of standard grammatical usages which make use of ellipsis.”

    AND I call bull&#!t on this:

    “I’m also always tempted to ask whether they would replace the sign outside a kids playground to indicate that it may be used only by children who are “5 years old or fewer”… ”

    This is NOT talking about YEARS, but about AGE (or time, if you wish) , a concept – like milk – that can be counted only so long as it is caught in measurable bits (years, months, days in the case of age). Thus:

    “Children who are five or fewer years (discreet units of age) old” or
    “The age of five years old (a point in their lives; a point in time) or less”

    So, “Five years old or less” is perfectly acceptable.

  4. Just because it’s “more natural and less stilted” to him to say ‘less’ doesn’t make it correct

    But ‘correctness’ is defined (by some) as how you find it most natural to say, or, depending if you go for the optimality theory account, least unnatural.
    I find it more unnatural to say ‘five items or fewer’ than ‘five items or less’, and, if I understand the implicature in your comment, so do you.
    That said, I agree with you on the ellipsis point. I don’t think ‘five items or less’ has an ellipted ‘[than that amount]’ either. But that only furthers language log’s point; ‘five items or less’ is less unnatural than ‘five items or fewer’, with or without the ellipsis.
    ‘Grammar’ is an abstract notion that describes how a language operates, it does not inform how the language is supposed to operate, that would stunt linguistic evolution and hinder the natural order. So in fact ‘correct’ is what is most natural to say (that is, if you subscribe to this view of grammar; of course, you are entitled not to, but language log does).

    For the record I think ‘less’ may be predicated of count or mass (non-count) nouns while ‘fewer’ may only be predicated of count nouns, and even then, only in certain registers. I’d even be tempted to say that ‘fewer’ only exists in the higher-brow register of written English (it’d be interesting to do a corpus analysis on this).

    (sorry for the lengthy comment)

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