Fewer/less: History, <...> measurement? Less than <number> of <count noun>.

Discussion in 'English Only' started by gaer, Apr 21, 2005.

  1. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    The source of my information is a book I've mentioned before: "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage."

    Unfortunately, I'm unable to share all the information I have, for two reasons. First, this book is not online. Second, to post the article on this one question alone from the book, even if I had the time and energy to type it all in or to scan it, would be violating copyright laws.

    The best thing I can do is to mention how the book is set up. When a question is discussed, countless written and spoken examples are given, and each example is linked to a name and a date.

    When there is a "rule", the first appearance of the rule is given, the person who made the rule is given, the wording of the rule is given, and the date is given. If someone wants the exact words of the man who first suggested that "fewer" is a better choice than "less", I'll present it here next post.

    I typed in example sentences given supporting the use of "fewer" and "less" for things that are countable. Later, if people want names and dates, I can provide that too.

    Here are just SOME example sentences. It's a long article:


    The odometer showed less than ten thousand miles.

    …he had something less than a million to his name when he went to Washington.

    I was never in Europe less than fourteen months at a time.

    …the present enrollment of less then 3,000 students.

    Her agency, less than three years old, is a smashing success.

    Begun with a capital of less than twenty pounds, it brought … financial security.

    … an allied people, today less than 50,000 in number.

    " … I've known you less than twenty-four hours. …"


    … Dudek's car has fewer than 600 miles on the odometer.

    … has never gained fewer than 1,222 yards in a season

    From fewer than 15,000 in 1960, they reached 60,000 by 1970.

    Less is preferred in these sentences, at least by the authors of this book:

    … readers are encouraged to keep their comments to 500 words or less.

    of all the millions of families in the country, two out of three consist of only three persons or less.

    … and now know enough to create little fictions that in 30 seconds or less get right to the heart of desire itself.

    In many sentences dealing with numbers, especially with math, "less" is the only choice.

    The conclusion (less OF count nouns is not a typo):

    The above examples show native speakers and writers using "less" of count nouns in various constructions. "Fewer" could have been used in many of them—at times it might have been more elegant, as Robert Baker thought—but in others no native speaker would use anything but "less". If you are a native speaker, your use of "less" and "fewer" can reliably be guided by your ear. If you are not a native speaker, you will find that the simple rule with which we started is a safe guide, except for the constructions for which we have shown "less" to be preferred.

    (The "simple" rule is the one many people were taught in school.)

    I hope this helps!

  2. te gato

    te gato Senior Member

    Calgary, Alberta
    Alberta--TGE (te gato English)
    Yes..I agree as I said in my post...less is used for statistical or numerical expressions..that is a given...and I do also concur that 'less' can be inserted in place of 'fewer'...but I still stand fast...with claws dug in...that in some instances using 'fewer' just does not fit...
    I have 'fewer' energy than you...:eek:

    te gato;)
  3. Markus

    Markus Senior Member

    Paris, France
    Canada - English
    Not only do I agree with you te_gato, but I do not think there are any instances in which you can replace less with fewer (unless fewer is already being replaced by less). Correct me if I'm wrong!
  4. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    Thanks Gaer,

    I have a favorite source for problems words that says something similar.

    "'Fewer' is preferred when number is involved." It's stated as a preference, not a rule. He also gives exceptions to the preferrence.

    H. Shaw: Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, Revised Edition, 1987, McGraw-Hill.

  5. te gato

    te gato Senior Member

    Calgary, Alberta
    Alberta--TGE (te gato English)
    Cuchu KIA;
    Help!!..look in your book for me...and see..
    'Twelve items or less.'...
    'Twelve items or fewer"...
    are both correct??..
    because I understand this less than I did when I started..or is it I understand this fewer than when I started..:D

    te gato;)
  6. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Te Gato,

    I never got to the part about where you CAN'T use fewer! Frankly, I thought that was so obvious, it did not need to be mentioned.

    I never said that the words are fully interchangeable, and I repeat: I just gave parts of a very long article.

    Energy is not a something that is counted. The whole point of what I posted was about things that can be counted, plurals.

    Energy is singular. Your digging your claws in for no reason!

  7. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Same thing, Markus. What I posted was about things that are countable, plurals.

    If you read what I posted carefully, you will see that it explains, clearly, that native speakers will know, by feel, when one or the other must be used.

    I also said that I would post the original "rule", which is a stated preference. It has to do with when "less" can be used in the case of "fewer".

    What did I do wrong?????

    Gaer <very, very frustrated…>
  8. te gato

    te gato Senior Member

    Calgary, Alberta
    Alberta--TGE (te gato English)
    waving a little white flag...uncle !! I give..!!:D
    Nothing was done wrong..I think we all just got a.. little..less...fewer confused..
    te gato;)
  9. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    I wasn't trying to win anything though! I was just trying to pass along the facts that were presented to me in a very good book. ;)

  10. te gato

    te gato Senior Member

    Calgary, Alberta
    Alberta--TGE (te gato English)
    Me either...
    can I borrow your book..:D

    te gato;)
  11. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    I wish I could lend it to you. It sounds like a really boring thing, but it's not. Although Merriam-Webster is an American company (it is, isn't it, not sure!), the sources are from the Oxford English Dictionary files, and those go back SO far, it's mind-boggling. :)

  12. Markus

    Markus Senior Member

    Paris, France
    Canada - English
    Nothing is wrong, sorry to upset you. ;) I knew what you were talking about, my agreement with what te_gato said was not a disagreement with anything you stated.

    Sorry for the confusion!

  13. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Actually, I never really stated anything, just attempted to sum up something that is not meant to be summed up. :)

  14. GenJen54

    GenJen54 Senior Member

    Downright Pleasant, USA
    USA - English
    I thought I would latch on to an old thread as opposed to starting a new one. I hope you don't mind, Gaer.

    I've been increasingly confused by this issue as of late, as it appears "less" is infiltrating "more" ;) into our "countable" language. To put it mildy, it's like a squeaky violin. It just sounds wrong.

    Here are some notable examples I have seen/heard in recent advertisements:

    more accounts. less payables.

    more cars. less hassles.

    I realize the advertisers are trying to forge a mental connection in their consumers' minds between "less" and "more", and that syllabically it flows better(?) than "fewer," but it just sounds clunky - and incorrect - to my ear.

    Then again, maybe I'm clinging too dearly to the old less (non-countable) and fewer (countable) stylistic, especially given the references cited in previous posts.

    Any other thoughts out there?

  15. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Nothing to add, except agreement-- less is spreading like a non-lethal rash, and it sounds very prickly to the ear. Advertising and marketing are the culprits, as so often in the age of electronic mass-"communications."

    I hope it's one of those things you get used to, but it's not irritating me any fewer as the years wear on.
  16. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    If "more" is used for "more pleasure" and "more problems", why is it any less logical to say "less pleasure" and "less problems"?

    "Less", used for countables, is not recent. It has been used for countables for for over a thousand years.

    The debate about whether or not "fewer" should be used instead of "less" started in 1770 with a suggestion, by one person (Robert Baker), based on his personal preference. His preference was misquoted as a "rule" by other people.


    Please read this page:


    The writer, Diane Sandford, quotes the original opinion of Robert Baker, then draws the conclusion that because other people blindly followed his opinion or suggestion, this is good reason for grammar books stating that the use of "less" for countables is wrong. Period.

    Using this twisted logic, Ms. Sandford then goes on to suggest that Isaac Asimov, because he said he had never heard of "the rule", was ignorant.

    I suppose it never occurred to her that such a famous author did not have time to bother with criticism coming from mental midgets.

    I'll go on using "less", as I always have, whenever I choose and will go on believing that those who object simply don't know the facts.

  17. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I have less marbles than my friend does, but fewer problems.

    "Less problems" might be quantitative, like an accounting of marbles, but it gives the impression of a lesser kind of problems. Marbles don't differ qualitatively, all rattling around in the bag, the way problems do, rattling around in your head.

    To me fewer emphasizes the separateness, even uniqueness of the things being counted. Less is unavoidable quantitative.

    You're right, no "rule" can cover such distinctions, but if you common-sensically apply a criterion like "quality vs quantity" to what is being measured, you can sort out which concepts become less when their count diminishes, and which become fewer.

    Do you really use less instead of fewer in all cases? "I can't talk about diversifying my portfolio the way you do, because I have fewer assets." This might be the same as "less assets," but it might not! What if I'm land poor, or I have annal interest from an enormous trust whose capital I can't shift from stocks to bonds, or monkey with in any other way, until I'm 65 years old? (what a punitive will that was!).

    What if I'm three times as rich as my friend who blithely diversifies his portfolio everytime he scents a shift of the breeze-- but I only have one or two major assets, as opposed to his myriad dabblings? I can't say I have less assets than he does, though I do have fewer.

    In this case, "personal preference" has nothing to do with my choice of words, nor influences what they mean. I'm sure there are as many examples this complex as there are things to be meted out fewer of-- or supplies of them to be given less of.

    "Less hassles" is commercialese, and it homogenizes nuances of meaning! Stop scratching it or it will get worse!
  18. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    I have less marbles and less problems. The whole distinction between these two words did not exist for me until I was "corrected", and then I investigated.

    In order to use "fewer", I have to back up and correct what I've written.

    If you have been taught in school that "fewer" is the only correct answer in many cases, then naturally you are going to stumble when you see "less" in places you have been taught it is wrong.

    But doesn't this bring up a really important question? If prior to 1770 there was no problem, why do we assume that a suggestion made at that time improved the language? Or the fact that countless pedants helped change a suggestion into a rule in some way makes it a good rule? I have no objection to "fewer" in cases where it is suggested. I often like the sound. However, I view it as a stylistic choice, not one of the "Seven Deadly Sins of Writing."
    Then why doesn't "more problems" cause the same confusion as "less problems"? I can't think of one situation in which I would misread the meaning indicated by "less"—unless the sentence in which it occurred were ambiguous. In that case, I'd say it was the sentence at fault, not the word.
    I simply don't agree. I think this is an arbitrary distinction that was "invented" in 1770 and one that has been rigidly defended by "Guardians of the Language".

    I don't think it is logical, I don't think it is consistent in the writing of fine authors, and I think the momentum behind insisting that this change in language, less than 250 years old, is necessary illustrates the attempt of a few self-proclaimed experts to impose their views on all of us.

    I repeat. I have no objection to "fewer". It sounds fine to me. But I do not recall one time in my life in which I was confused because "less" was used instead.
    Again, I have to make the same point. What if you talk about having more assets. However, here you are talking about a specific area. I don't have a portfolio. I would not know what you were talking about, no matter which word you used. Nevertheless, people didn't talk about diversifying their portfolios in 1770, and a particular area of finance (for example) may demand wording that is not demanded otherwise.

    Let me show you my ignorance:
    I honestly have no idea what you are talking about. What you are saying is probably very logical, but I see no difference between "fewer" and "less" assets. I'm not being sarcastic or argumentative. I assume you are making some kind of distinction between how much you have (total worth???) and how many different investments you have (you could have few investments but they could be huge.) Is that what that would mean?

    Here are things I would say:

    I have less students this year.
    I've had less problems getting to sleep lately.
    There are less new threads in the German forum today.

    All these sentences would horrify anyone who is convinced that "fewer" is not only right but necessary.

    Furthermore, I would have no objection to changing each "less" to "fewer". But I do object to being told that I must, that I'm caving into a recent change in usage (NOT true), or that because of my word choice I am just a bit ignorant (definitely not true).

    Most of all, I wish people would do some research about words before giving people very strong "do" and "don't" rules that are based on nothing more than what they have been told by "experts". In the case of your "portfolio" example, I think you might have an excellent reason for refining your definition of these two words. I just don't think that the "rule" is generally referring to such specific cases. It's too general, too didactic, inflexible, unreasonable for me. :)

  19. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I guess we'll agree to disagree about "fewer and less," except that I'll note that if "fewer" sounds better to you sometimes, we're a lot more in the same boat than your long post would imply. I know it's the culmination of a whole thread I was only belatedly involved in.

    I was looking for reasons why one word "sounds better" to me-- a phrase I was careful to use. And I wasn't setting down dicta for others to follow-- another point I was careful to make. Avoiding authoritarianism is one reason I like exposition by example.

    I do see a fallacy in your objection to the distinction, equivocating on their "oppositeness" to the word more. More is the opposite of both less and fewer, just as old is the opposite of both young and new. You can't make a logical case against differentiating meanings between young and new simply because they are both "equally" the opposite of old.

    I know that's a collateral to the argument as you phrased it, and the point you made was that since more is the same word, it can't therefore cover two meanings. Well...old clearly covers at least two, and it's common sense and idiom and context that determine which-- just as it is with more. I hope you're not telling me that I don't hear a difference between that word as used, respectively, in "more marbles" and "more problems."

    Same word, a difference in nuance of meaning in the way they're used-- and I hope no one thinks I get any of this stuff out of a rule book. I'd sooner expect to be faulted for off-the-cuffness. On the other hand, didn't the people who compiled the first explanatory book about grammar and rhetoric have to do it off the top of their heads as well?
  20. Jonegy Senior Member

    UK - English
    In chat room parlance - ROFLMFHO. Though I have seem ROFLMFAO by our trans-Atlantic cousins.

    "Marbles" over here is an often used slang term
    for brains or common sence. In which case it could be.......

    " ...less marbles - therefore - fewer problems "

    ie - what you don't know don't bother you :D
  21. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I'm glad to use an apt example and get a chuckle at the same time-- with so many choices available, why not operate on both levels?

    In AE it pretty much boils down to a set phrase, "lost your marbles," meaning went off your trolley. Came unraveled-- but I guess that's another thread.
  22. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Well, I sent you some more history in a PM. :)
    In general I agree with simply because context is so terribly important, and generalizing is so dangerous. I will only repeat that we are conditioned to accept what we have been taught and have gotten used to writing or reading, and it is natural to stumble over things that are different.

    If this discussion continues, I have a couple examples I'd like to give which illustrate how easy it is to assume that what we are not used to is wrong. :)
    Forget about that analogy then, although there is no history of "young" and "new" being used interchangeably, whereas there is a clear record of "less" and "fewer" being used interchangeably for over 1,000 years.

    It was not my main point. :) As I explained in my PM, "less" has been used in the sense of "fewer" since about 888, and my investigation has convinced me that people have never stopped using it that way.
    That's a good point. However, there is all the difference in the world between a scholarly analysis of how a word has been used for centuries and a book written by a self-proclaimed expert who merely states that something is correct—or not correct—without anything to back it up except the word of other pedants.

    There's a bigger point here than "fewer versus less". To me the important point is how people come to conclusions about what is proper and improper usage, and what kind of reasoning they use to support these conclusions. :)
  23. Ivan_I Senior Member

    Guys, in terms of numbers only, what are the valid options to use?

    The number 4 is
    1) lower - correct
    2) lesser - correct
    3) smaller - correct
    4) fewer - wrong
    5) less - wrong
    than 5.

    The number 4 is
    6) higher - correct
    7) greater - correct
    8) bigger - ???
    than 3.
  24. cruzy Member

    Hi everyone!

    What about this?

    1. Although there was a return to 8000 in 1965, this was not maintained and in 1985 there were again fewer than 8000 schools.

    2. There were almost 8000 government schools in 1905, rising to 10 000 in 1924 and remaining around that figure until 1935 when a steady decline began, falling to less than 8000 schools in 1955.

    Why in the first sentence they used fewer and in the second less, if both refer to schools (which is countable)?

    PD: these sentences are from an english book for IELTS.

    Thank you in advance!
  25. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    In these two less than constructions, the evidence offered by the Merriam-Webster book (which is a surprisingly good one) is as follows:

    "Fewer can be used in the same constructions, but it appears less often than less. It is sometimes used
    in such a way as to make one suspect that an editor rather than a writer is responsible for the fewer."​

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