Arrant Pedantry

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Less and Fewer

I know this topic has been addressed in detail elsewhere (see goofy’s post here for example), but a friend recently asked me about it, so I thought I’d take a crack at it. It’s fairly straightforward: there are the complex, implicit rules that people have been following for over a thousand years, and then there are the simple, explicit, artificial rules that some people have been trying to inflict on everyone else for the last couple of centuries.

The explicit rule is this: use fewer for count nouns (things that can be numbered), and use less for mass nouns (things that are typically measured). So you’d say fewer eggs but less milk, fewer books but less information. Units of time, money, distance, and so on are usually treated as mass nouns (so you’d say less than ten years old, not fewer than ten years old. One handy (but overly simplistic) way to tell mass nouns and count nouns apart (save for the exception I just noted) is this: if you can make it plural and use a numeral in front of it (five eggs), then it’s a count noun and it takes fewer.

The only problem with this rule is that it was invented by Robert Baker in 1770, and it contradicts historical and present-day usage. In actual practice, fewer has always been restricted to count nouns, but less is often used with count nouns, too, especially in certain constructions like twenty-five words or less, no less than one hundred people, and one less problem to worry about. It used to be that people used less when it sounded natural and nobody worried about it, but then some guy in the eighteenth century got the bright idea that we should always use one word for count nouns and one word for mass nouns, and people have been freaking out about it ever since.

Baker’s rule is appealing because it’s simple and (in my opinion) because it allows people to judge others who don’t know grammar. It makes a certain kind of sense to use one word for one thing and another word for another thing, but the fact is that language is seldom so neat and tidy. Real language is full of complexities and exceptions to rules, and the amazing thing is that we learn all of these rules naturally just by listening to and talking with other people. Breaking Baker’s rule is not a sign of lazy thinking or sloppy grammar or anything else negative—it’s just a sign that you’re a native speaker.

The fact that not everybody follows the simple, explicit rule, nearly 240 years after it was created, shows you just how hard it is to get people to change their linguistic habits. Is there any advantage to following the made-up rule? Probably not, aside from avoiding stigma from people who like to look down their noses at those who they deem to have poor grammar. So if you want to please the fussy grammarian types, be sure to use follow Baker’s made-up rule. If you don’t care about those types, use whatever comes naturally to you.

10 Responses to Less and Fewer

  1. Bobo Linq says:

    “The that not everybody follows” should be “The fact that not everybody follows”

  2. Jonathon says:

    Yes, thank you. I guess I should’ve proofread that first.

  3. John Roach says:

    It’s funny: I have rules for all of your aberrations in third paragraph. I won’t bother sharing them, as that would be beside the point, but there is no inconsistency in my mind.

    On a related topic, the less/fewer distinction, along with who/whom and other similar rules, strike me as needless — they don’t provide any information. They’re strictly niceties. In my mind, they will change soon rather than later, and English will be the better for it.

    I’d like to hear your opinion (or a link) on this. Do we need grammar rules that serve little purpose other than giving people a reason to criticize us?

  4. Jonathon says:

    Sorry for the slow response; I’ve been out of town.

    I agree that they’re needless, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t provide any information; they simply provide information that’s already provided elsewhere. This sort of redundancy is harmless and may possibly be helpful if it helps a reader or listener anticipate what you’re going to say next. But any benefit is probably measured in milliseconds, so I’d say it’s a waste of time and effort to invent rules and then try to get everyone to follow them.

    Strictly speaking, we don’t need rules like this, but I think that, to some extent, they’re inevitable. People will find any excuse they can to discriminate against others, and language provides an easy way to distinguish those in the know from everyone else. I think the only thing that can be done about it is to change the way we teach language in school, but that’s much easier said than done.

  5. Pingback: Pro Writing Tips » Less and fewer

  6. Meh … I’ve blogged about this, too, but if there is one rule I never care to see again it’s the less/fewer rule–it seems that it’s one of these ones that peevologists rather simplistically invoke. For example, it seems as though everyone has a beef with “10 items or less” signs at the supermarket. Okay, we get it!

    I like this comment you made: “People will find any excuse they can to discriminate against others, and language provides an easy way to distinguish those in the know from everyone else.” It sums up nicely another peeve I have lately about strident “grammar nazis,” which is the way in which they tend to divide the world into “stupid people who don’t know grammar” versus “smart people who do.” It’s just not that simple, I think.

  7. Jonathon says:

    Thanks! This is indeed one of those issues that has been beaten to death, and I’m sure it’s received much better treatment elsewhere, but I figured one more beating probably couldn’t do too much damage.

  8. Pingback: Less or fewer? « Sentence first

  9. Mededitor says:

    So if “less” and “fewer” are interchangeable and the rule is silly, then it should be A-OK to say: “I have fewer water than you.”

    How about “She has less bananas than I have”?

    This doesn’t seem to be something we can pin on some 18th century dude, rather, it involves grammar at a deep level and is fundamental to idiomatic English.

    So. How do we explain “10 items or less”? Probably because a statement like, “Sam has less than ten days to live” is more fluid than “fewer than ten days left to live,” which is a more complex construction.

    I think it’s arguable that in most cases a native speaker will employ “less” and “fewer” in the correct way, and break the rule mostly in cases where the phrasing is simpler.

  10. Jonathon says:

    Please note that I never said that they are interchangeable. In fact, I said this:

    In actual practice, fewer has always been restricted to count nouns, but less is often used with count nouns, too, especially in certain constructions.

    So no native speakers would ever produce your first sentence, but a great many would produce your second, and they have been producing such sentences for over a thousand years.

    The use of less with count nouns is indeed a part of idiomatic English—natural, idiomatic language is seldom as neat and tidy as prescriptive rules. But the rule is indeed something we can pin on some eighteenth-century dude. The history is pretty clear on that point. See this entry in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure what you mean by “fluid” and “complex”, but the biggest reason why less is okay with things like units of time and measurement is that they refer not to discrete, countable things but to amounts of stuff. Your argument is attempting to fit the facts to the rule rather than the other way around.

    Usage came first, and the rule came along much later to try (mostly unsuccessfully) to force the use of the two words into complementary distribution on the usage. People “break” the rule not because it’s simpler, but because the rule runs counter to the natural idiom of English.

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