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Thread: fewer or less [with percentages]

  1. #1
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    fewer or less [with percentages]

    Teacher needs help.
    I found the following sentence in a text:
    Fewer than 1% of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds.

    The use of "fewer" is justified by the use of the countable noun "homicides". However, my computer suggests the use of "less" instead.
    Which is correct, fewer or less?

  2. #2
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    Re: fewer or less

    Quote Originally Posted by hannibal25 View Post
    Teacher needs help.
    I found the following sentence in a text:
    Fewer than 1% of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds.

    The use of "fewer" is justified by the use of the countable noun "homicides". However, my computer suggests the use of "less" instead.
    Which is correct, fewer or less?
    I believe that "less" is preferable here because it describes 1%, not homicides.

  3. #3
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    Re: fewer or less

    In this case, I believe "less" would be preferred because you are not really counting homicides, but quantifying the percentage.

    You would say ".5% is less than 1%" , but I'm not sure you would say ".5% is fewer than 1%"

    I suppose they are interchangeable in the vernacular though, because I do hear "Fewer than x%" quit a bit.

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    Re: fewer or less

    Thanks a lot for your help

  5. #5
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    Re: fewer or less

    You computer grammar checker is confused. It apparently isn't looking beyond the percentage to determine whether the noun is countable.

    You are correct.

    Word processing grammar-checkers are like GPS-based navigation systems, you should never, ever trust them implicitly.
    "My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way." - Ernest Hemingway

  6. #6
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    Re: fewer or less [with percentages]

    My vote goes to fewer. Homicides are body counts.

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    Re: fewer or less [with percentages]

    My vote goes with less.
    Percentages are not countable.
    Surely "fewer than one" has to be zero?

    See <Fewer/Less> than one percent of Spanish students around the world ...
    Last edited by panjandrum; 27th January 2011 at 12:27 AM.
    It takes two to tangle.

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    Re: fewer or less [with percentages]

    Quote Originally Posted by Parla View Post
    My vote goes to fewer. Homicides are body counts.
    "less than 1%" of the homicides - here less refers to 1%
    fewer than "1% of the homicides" - here fewer refers to the whole phrase that follows, in which "homicides" is the head noun modified by "1% of".

    Similarly, I think we can say
    1% of the homicides are committed at night. - plural verb because of "homicides"

    1% of the homicides is actually a lot. - singular verb because of "1%"

    So I suppose it actually depends on the point of view. And I accept "fewer", just like Parla.

  9. #9
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    Re: fewer or less [with percentages]

    It seems fairly obvious here that this is an example of language adapting to common usage, and that neither option is demonstrably incorrect.

    My vote, however, goes for "fewer", since homicides are countable. My reasoning is based on what "percent" means; "per" = "in every" and "cent" meaning "hundred". We could rewrite "10% of the homicides" as "ten in every hundred of the homicides", and in that case the use of "fewer" would be clearer cut.

  10. #10
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    Re: fewer or less [with percentages]

    'Fewer' in this position always strikes me as an illiteracy perpetrated by copy-editors. Even people who naturally use 'fewer' with countable objects don't automatically use it with all whole numbers. The natural English is 'less than 1%', like 'less than one in ten', and 'less than $10 a day'.

    For some obscure reason 'fewer' is about the only grammatical shibboleth where the illiterates are winning. People now routinely change 'less' to 'fewer' the way they used to change so-called split infinitives. I wish less people did this, I really do.

  11. #11
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    Re: fewer or less [with percentages]

    I'm generally in favour of using "less than" when talking of units of measurement rather than concrete entities: "less than $10", "less than 10 kilometres", but "fewer than 10 people".

    Here, though, we have an inconsistency. First, to continue with the units of measurement, we can say,
    "less than $10 is a reasonable price" and "less than 10 km is not far". "Less" and "is" are consistently singular.

    But if we say,
    Less than 1% of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds.
    considering "less than 1%" to be uncountable, why do we then say "happen" and not "happens"?

    That's why my vote goes for "fewer", if writing formally.

    That being said, I have to say that here "less than" doesn't really jar with me and I might well write it.

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