When Less is Less and Fewer, Fewer

fewer, less, grammar usageOne 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!

Who Cares?

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.)

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11 thoughts on “When Less is Less and Fewer, Fewer”

  1. Yep. We all have our ‘sore’ points where Grammar is concerned, don’t we? Mine happens to be that I wince every time I see effect/affect and complement/compliment muddled. Of course, what your chap won’t necessarily realise, if he is of the ‘whatever’ camp regading such issues – is that a tranche of us pedants out there, scattered among writers, readers AND editors/agents, will read such bloopers and while it may not be a complete deal-breaker, will tend to take the transgressors a lot less seriously. This doesn’t, of course, include the occasional typo – we are all human – but I do wince at a number of otherwise really excellent bloggers when I see the number of grammatical spattering their articles.

    1. I must admit, Sarah, that my esteem for this fellow who purports to sit in judgement of submitted articles is somewhat diminished. Thanks for sharing your view and sore spots!

  2. Don’t wander too far, Allan. You’ll get lost in all the new pathways being forged out there. Hunker down with a nice, warm brownie.

    Wish I had an answer to solve all of this, but chaos is our lifestyle now.

    1. Thanks for the advice, Stu (and the brownie). All the more reason to retreat to a mountain side, grow a beard and live off the land. I wonder where those guru guys get those cool sandals…

  3. love the “less” lesson Allan. We will make sure to apply this theory to our writing. That is un”less” we find out it becomes a hot point in selling your book! LOL

    1. also… I went to your blog and read the post on Blog Envy. I was moved by compassion to leave an encouraging comment – but could find no way to leave any sort of comment. If Tumbler allows comments, you appear to need to turn that on. Then we could help to assure your blog that she is beautiful, and informative, and entertaining.

  4. I agree with you one-hundred percent (and I agree with the comment from sjhigbee too). Yes, we all have occasional typos, but to knowingly break the rules of grammar is just wrong. If the purpose of writing is to convey a message, then using correct grammar will help ensure that what has been written will be understood. BTW, is it old-fashioned to use “who” when referring to human beings? (Ex: She’s the girl THAT lives around the corner.) That one bothers me.

    1. No, I’d agree with the idea that when speaking of a person, “who” would be proper. Perhaps a group of people: club, gang, or nation, could be referred to as a thing (that). This is another of those “modernizations” that seem to be creeping in to subvert effective language skills. I blame social media and cell phones (texting) for this 🙂

  5. Rail on against the eager descent into the dark abyss of laziness and stupidity. Those leading the plunge may never thank those of us fighting the fight nor even appreciate the need for the fight, but it is for the betterment of us all.

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