Should you be using ‘less’ or ‘fewer’? – RN


Posted

March 22, 2018 07:00:00

As anyone who writes “Oxford comma enthusiast” in their Twitter bio will gladly tell you, English possesses quite a few rules.

One of these rules revolves around when it is correct to use less, and when it is correct to use fewer.

Here is the rule as it is often expressed:

Fewer refers to numbers of things. Less refers to quantities of things. So fewer jobs, but less employment.

For most style guides, this is about as far as the issue is usually pursued.

Which is fair enough, really: you don’t have to be a UX designer to understand most people don’t care about the vast and boring history of English usage — they just want to write a headline that won’t get them pilloried.

But wait, there’s more!

Have a look at the following real-life examples of news reporting, and see if you can spot any errors.

A teenage boy was shot less than two minutes after police arrived at his home, south-west of Brisbane.

The State Government sold the property … for less than $500,000.

If you said “both those examples use less, but both modify numbers of things (minutes and dollars, respectively) so shouldn’t it be fewer?”, then congratulations: you have managed to be both extremely perceptive and a bit misguided.

Certain nouns that seem to refer to numbers (time, measurements, sums of money, statistics) can take less as a modifier without controversy — the reason here being that people generally conceive of such units as amounts, rather than numbers.

Let’s amend our stated rule to reflect reality:

Fewer refers to numbers of things. Less refers to quantities of things. So fewer jobs, but less employment.

Less is also used to modify units of time, money, measurement, and other general statistics.

But wait, there’s still more!

To get slightly technical: in English, according to our rule, fewer is used correctly when it modifies what most grammar manuals call count nouns.

These nouns are aptly named, because they refer to things you can count: editors, cabbages, books, and so on.

As one linguist dryly noted in an overview of the psychological literature on count nouns, their boundaries are fixed: “The sum of two chairs would not lead to one bigger chair.”

Less, on the other hand, is conventionally held to be correct when it modifies mass nouns: concepts or quantities that don’t have clear-cut boundaries. Butter, cream, and information are all examples of mass nouns.

But confusingly, mass nouns can become count nouns in specific circumstances.

As an example, let’s stick with butter. As the Cambridge Guide to Australian English notes, a chef may uncontroversially refer to “all the butters in the fridge” to differentiate between different types of butter (salted, unsalted, brands, etc).

In such a construction, butter — ordinarily a mass noun — has taken on the characteristics of a count noun.

Would our hypothetical chef be right, then, in avoiding purchasing from supermarkets whose shelves stock “fewer butters”?

Let’s amend that simple rule again.

Fewer refers numbers of things and is used with count nouns. Less refers to quantities of things, and is generally used with mass nouns. So fewer jobs, but less employment.

Less is also used to modify units of time, money, measurement, and other general statistics.

In some circumstances, mass nouns may become countable, and as such can take fewer.

You guessed it: there’s more!

Time was, it was common promotional practice to ask people to enter competitions or other prize pools by responding to some primer — usually in “25 words or less”.

At the supermarket, too, express lanes have long been marked by signs proclaiming “10 items or less”.

While items and words are, on the face of it, easily quantifiable count nouns and as such should take fewer according to our rule, these specific uses of less are essentially standard in English. These uses have been established in Australia since at least 1980.

This usage is not free of detractors: in the early 2000s, apparently in response to customer pedantry, British retailer Marks & Spencer changed their express lane signage to say “six items or fewer”.

Some years later, the not-to-be-outdone Tesco — then the UK’s largest grocery chain — cut the Gordian knot by changing their signage to the (ambiguous) “up to 10 items”.

At any rate, let’s amend our rule again:

Fewer refers numbers of things and is used with count nouns. Less refers to quantities of things, and is generally used with mass nouns. So fewer jobs, but less employment.

Less is also used to modify units of time, money, measurement, and other general statistics.

In special circumstances, mass nouns may become countable, and as such can take fewer.

Less is also used for some specific constructions (five items or less, 25 five words or less).

Call today and we’ll throw in a set of steak knives!

Up until now, we’ve framed usage around less and fewer around correctness, using mostly binary terms.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, for instance, exhorts its readers to avoid “misuse” of less in place of fewer. But correctness in English is hardly one size fits all.

Some style guides — the Commonwealth Style Manual is one — sidestep notions of correctness entirely, suggesting it’s perfectly fine to use less with plural count nouns if your aim is to be less formal or come across as more relaxed.

Thus, fewer jobs is acceptable — and so is less jobs. Oh dear. Get the style guide, it’s amendin’ time:

Fewer refers numbers of things and is used with count nouns. Less refers to quantities of things, and is generally used with mass nouns. So fewer jobs, but less employment.

Less is also used to modify units of time, money, measurement, and other general statistics.

In special circumstances, mass nouns may become countable, and as such can take fewer.

Less is also used for some specific constructions (five items or less, 25 words or less).

In speech or informal writing, less can also be used before plural count nouns.

Where does the rule about ‘less vs fewer’ come from?

By this point, with all of the exceptions above listed, you have to wonder where this “rule” about not using less with numbers of things comes from.

As far as usage boffins have discerned, this condemnation of lesswith-count-nouns seems only to spring from one 18th century text: Robert Baker’s Remarks on the English Language.

Unlike many texts of its period, Baker’s screed isn’t even making a pretence of trying to force Latin or Greek grammatical structures onto nascent English language standards.

Instead, he bases this “rule” entirely on personal preference:

“This word [less] is often used in speaking of a number, where I should think fewer would do better,” Baker wrote. Using fewer, he mused, was both “more elegant” and “more strictly proper”.

Baker didn’t even have the animus of a modern-day pedant, who sees less used where he thinks fewer should be and calls for the immediate defunding of the national broadcaster.

Baker devoted far more ink damning colloquial uses of mutual, or arguing that the indefinite pronoun one (as in, “Unless one is very cautious..”) must only take one and oneself in the genitive and dative cases.

So should I use less, or fewer?

In No Country For Old Men, the mesmerising hitman Anton Chigurh is fond of mocking his opponents’ moral codes.

“If the rule you followed brought you to this,” Chigurh says before one particularly visceral execution, “of what use was the rule?”

The same advice generally applies to issues of English usage — though fortunately with less bloodletting.

On less and fewer: of what use is the rule? The adoption of Baker’s personal preference by a century’s worth of usage manuals means that now, anyone who writes less jobs must contend with a harsh response to their scheduled Tweet (or the pedantic shoppers at Tesco).

Such complainants, even being made aware that their “rule” has its origins in an 18th century thought bubble and not the English grammatical system, might well argue that it’s ahistorical to ignore a century or so’s worth of Strunk and White and others.

Everyone else just wants this dispute to go away. Personally speaking, I couldn’t care fewer.

Tiger Webb is a researcher with ABC Language.

Topics:

english,

books-literature,

english-literature,

human-interest,

australia





Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *