The Negative Canon: Less / Fewer

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Condemnation of the use of less in reference to things that can be counted is not far to seek. It’s a staple of maven discourse.

Among those who have published on it, Harry Blamires predictably states in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’:

Fewer refers to number, whereas less refers to bulk or amount. One rarely finds fewer where the word should be less. But the converse error is still very common.

‘If public transport were better, there would be far less people going about in cars.’

The word should be fewer. Less people would be people of smaller stature.

R L Trask is hardly less unequivocal in ‘Mind the Gaffe’:

Though colloquial English is different, standard written English uses fewer with things that can be counted and less with things that cannot be counted.

In ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’, (intended, it is important to say, for foreign learners of English), Peter Harvey also shares the view of many:

Fewer is used with countable nouns and little/less is used with uncountable nouns. However, native speakers sometimes wrongly use less with countable nouns: less books, people, years. When it refers to a quantity rather than to a number, it is acceptable in forms such as (No) less than fifteen minutes, 200 miles, £3000.

And yet, and yet . . .

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) traces the origin of the objection to less where many might prefer fewer to Robert Baker who, in his ‘Reflections on the English Language’ in 1770 commented:

This word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would be better. No Fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper.

MWDEU points out the guarded nature of Baker’s words in the use of ‘I should think’, ‘would be better’ and ‘appears to me’. He is expressing a personal view, rather than a fact. By the twentieth century, however, that view had for many become an absolute truth, as my earlier quotations show. But as MWDEU reminds us, the OED shows that less has been used for countables for more than 1000 years, since King Alfred wrote in his translation of Boethius’s ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae’:

Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma (with less or more words)

MWDEU goes on to record, with examples, the way in which less rather than fewer tends to be used in certain common constructions, particularly less than, noting, as Peter Harvey does, that:

The countables in this construction are often distances, sums of money, units of time, and statistical enumerations, which are often thought of as amounts rather than numbers.

In assessing examples showing less used with countable nouns, MWDEU concludes that:

. . . native speakers and writers of English [use] less of count nouns in various constructions. Fewer could have been used in many of [the preceding examples] – at times it might have been thought more elegant, as Robert Baker thought – but in others no native speaker would use anything but less.

Those who make a fuss about it might like to ponder why we are content with a single word, more, to describe both greater quantities and greater amounts. The day may yet come when we are all equally content to use less for both smaller quantities and smaller amounts. Meanwhile, Pam Peters, in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ makes the pertinent point that:

. . . it was and is essentially a stylistic choice, between the more formal fewer and the more spontaneous less. Fewer draws attention to itself, whereas less shifts the focus on to its more significant neighbours.

That makes supermarket signs such as ‘Five Items Or Less’ entirely appropriate. Sharpie wielders take note.

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8 Comments

Filed under The Negative Canon

8 responses to “The Negative Canon: Less / Fewer

  1. Thank you once again for the mention. I would agree with you; as you note, the caveat in my book expresses the common view. I was particularly concerned with warning foreign learners not to use less with a plural noun. Spanish, for example, does not have this distinction: menos tiempo and menos libros are less time and fewer books.

    As for the rest, I could have included your other examples in my book but had I done so, and similarly expanded other articles, it would have been of exceptional length and might indeed never have been finished. The line must be drawn somewhere, especially for learners who are not really worried about the five items or fewer shibboleth for example.

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  2. They are wise not to be worried about it.

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  3. “Less people would be people of smaller stature.” Does he seriously believe that?

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  4. “We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” —Samuel Gompers, British-born first president of the American Federation of Labor

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  5. I find I often use ‘less’, especially with ‘people’. As a teacher, I usually check myself, but I do find ‘fewer’ a bit stilted sometimes. With students I tell them the ‘rules’ but point out that, as with so many of the ‘rules’ you’ve been talking about, many educated native speakers, me included, don’t always follow them, especially in spoken language. I don’t think I’d use the word ‘wrongly’ though.

    And shame on Tescos for bowing in to the pressure of the grammar bullies. As Peter says that’s a shibboleth, and ‘Ten items or less’ is perfectly good idiomatic English. (As MWDEU says)

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    • It is a shame. I wonder who they got to advise them.

      Do you happen to know, Will, of any TEFL book that covers both variant standard forms and the grammar of speech – things like heads and tails and ellipsis?

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