One of my greatest pet peeves about modern writing is the flagrant misuse of the word “less”. I see it everywhere, even so called professional journalists are saying such things as “…we have 20 less laps to go in the race…” Advertisements claim, “Now with less calories” or “We have less waiting lines”. Less has become the defacto identifier for all quantity comparisons.
Prior to the eighteenth century, this would have been perfectly acceptable, but since that time it has been accepted that “fewer” is to be used when talking about things that can be counted individually, “less” when taking about items or amounts that are not individually countable. Let’s look at some examples.
If I look into my wallet, I could say, “I have less than twenty dollars in my wallet” or I could say it as “I have fewer than twenty dollar bills in my wallet.” Both would be correct, but “I have less than twenty dollar bills is incorrect because dollar bills can be individually counted, where “dollars” refers to an unknown mix of bills and/or coin.
When a race announcer says “We have less laps to go in the race now…” this is incorrect. He could say, “We have less of the race to go…” Or “We have fewer laps to go in the race…” and be correct.
A bank or store may say, ”You’ll spend less time waiting.” or “We have fewer waiting lines.”, but “We have less waiting lines.” is incorrect. See the difference between them? Time is a nebulous thing that cannot be directly counted as used in this sentence, lines can.
I’m not sure whether this distortion of grammatical rules was borne of ignorance or laziness, but I urge all writers to learn this simple rule “fewer if you can count it, less if you can’t” and apply it diligently to your writing. Especially if you happen to be an advertising writer!
I’ve been planning to write this post for some weeks now, but had it ranked as a low priority until a few moments ago. Just this morning I was approached by a fellow who wants me to be a judge in a writing contest. His invitation included the statement “With each round we’ll need less and less [judges], since there will be less stories in each round.” I responded with a critique of his invitation, pointing out the less/fewer error.
This was perhaps not the most intelligent way to respond; unless of course my world will not end if this fellow excludes me as a judge, and I suspect it won’t. His reply to me was, in part: “…I am of the opinion that the way something sounds is more important than a rule no one follows anyway. Rules change over time.”
As I’m writing this it is Sunday, and I make it a practice never to vilify anyone on Sundays. But it does make a great example of an attitude I’m seeing more and more in “modern society”; the idea that rules/laws/social norms can and should be totally ignored if you don’t like them. The good of the one (you) outweighs the good of the many (society). As a student of human nature and to a lesser degree, history and society, I can tell you that if a society evolves into a collection of individuals bent on pleasing themselves, then society becomes chaos. Want to know why the suicide rate is so high? Want to know why an increasing number of young people are going into their schools and shooting their classmates and teachers? Look to the prevailing value system of society. Ignoring one rule of grammar may not signal the end of civilization, but when you assemble enough grains of sand, you get a beach.
(He steps down from his soap box and wanders away, shaking his head.)