Fewer/less: History, <...> measurement? <...> than three books, <...> than five kilos of sugar?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by englishman, Sep 8, 2006.

  1. englishman Senior Member

    English England
    Split from here.
    A point of grammar: this should read "one person fewer".

    You use "fewer" when you are talking about discrete things (people, birds, pens, etc) and "less" when talking about continuous things (flour, sugar, water) e.g.

    "If you have fewer than five books, read them " :tick:
    "If you have fewer than 3 kilos of sugar, eat it all" :cross:
    "If you have less than five books, read them" :cross:
    "If you have less than 3 kilos of sugar, eat it all" :tick:
  2. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    I disagree. This whole debate about less/fewer has gone on for centuries. Both have been used at all times for counting. It started with a grammarian who expressed a preference for using "fewer" for "countables", and his prefernce—only a preference—was picked up by other grammarians who declared it a rule—with absolutely no logical basis for doing so.

    I usually use "fewer" myself just to stop people from correcting something that is not wrong to begin with. :)

    We will be "one person fewer next year" in my opinion sounds extremely unnatural.


  3. Well, actually, I know the rule , but... maybe I have been surrounded by entirely uneducated species all my life, but "one person fewer" sounds pretty strange to me.

    Perhaps, one of those mistakes which have become part of life.
  4. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Here are two links that merely scratch the surface:



    Both these links barely scratch the surface.

    The one thing that you will find mentioned over and over again is this: the "rule" about using only "fewer" for "countables" appeared out of nowhere.

    Robert Baker expressed a preference for "fewer" over "less" in 1770. His opinion—only an opinion—was then stated by as rule by other grammarians, the same kind of people who are gleefully playing havoc with the German language right now.

    This is what happens when individuals try to arbitrarily define what is right and wrong in a language.

    When you read that "less" is being used more and more, incorrectly, and that it is a recent trend, it is only the chapter in a very long story. :)

  5. heidita Banned

    Madrid, Spain
    Germany (German, English, Spanish)
    So have I, dear, so have I!

    Never heard fewer. Actually here in Spain and I think in Germany, in my times anyway, less was taught for all cases, countable or uncountable.

    This reminds me of a joke referring to the president's ability to speak English (heard on The Tonight Show). The host was making a joke about the introduction of English as the official language in the US and Bush supposingly said:"This is going to be gooder for the country"

    I have found this:
  6. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Same here. I have never heard "We're one person fewer now" or "There were fewer than 100 people in the concert." I always hear, have been taught, and say "less than."
  7. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    To my ear, it is the only correct thing to say.
    I'll agree that "less" is very frequently used, but then "I done real good" is also very frequently heard, but that ain't right neither.:D

    Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Learners of English is quite definite:
    You use less to talk about things that cannot be counted: less time. When you are talking about things that can be counted, you should use "fewer": fewer students.

  8. Hmmm...I would definitely say, "fewer students" but still "one person less":D
  9. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Why use so many different dictionaries, if we have an own? :D

    By the way, "he's less than three years old" should be "fewer," then, too. I'd consider "year/day/week" countable words. However, this is considered correct:

  10. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    I told you who invented the rule. I have read the history of the usage of "less" and "fewer". You are quoting dictionaries.

    If you are telling me that if I say that I have "less students this year" it is the equivalent of saying "I done real good or "that ain't right either", as far as I'm concerned you are implying that I am ignorant and that I have very little knowledge of the English language.

    Is that your point? :confused:

  11. englishman Senior Member

    English England
    "our own"

    No, you're misunderstanding the rule. "three years old" is a measure of time, which is a continuous quantity: it doesn't come in chunks. So, this should certainly be "less" since he could be two years, 11 months, 15 days, 12 hours, 13 minutes, 27 seconds old.
  12. englishman Senior Member

    English England
    To my ears too, accustomed to the sweet sound of BE, "fewer" sounds absolutely right, and "less" grates like a rusty hinge.

    I agree with gaer's argument, however, even though it supports me rather than him, in reality. He says we shouldn't appeal to long-dead grammarians when deciding upon what is wrong and right in modern language, and I agree; but here, "less" is right simply because it's a long-standing usage of at least 200 years, not because someone said it was right 200 years ago.
  13. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    You talked about countable vs. uncountable nouns. "Years" are countable; I say "many years" and not "much years," so it's possible to use "fewer than 3 years" (three times a year = many years, and not much years) instead of "less than 3 years" (where I would consider "3 years" as a measure of time, and not regard the years separately).
  14. englishman Senior Member

    English England
    Regardless of your argument, I promise you that "fewer than 3 years old" sounds strange in English, and "less than 3 years old" doesn't. And though I hate to rely on weight of numbers to support an argument, the good old Google count backs me up strongly:

    "fewer than 3 years old" - 294 instances
    "less than 3 years old" - 145000 instances
  15. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    We all have preferences. In the case of "fewer" and "less", I don't think you understand my position. The preference was stated by Robert Baker in 1770. He never said that "fewer" is the only correct choice. He said that he preferred it personally. I believe he thought it sounded smoother or more elegant. I have his exact words in a book. After that he was misquoted as having said it was "wrong" or "incorrect". This was the start of more than 200 years of controversy.
    You've reversed everything. It was the long-dead grammarians who who turned one man's preference into a grammatical rule that had no grounding in usage up to that time. I have no objection to using fewer for countables. I think it sounds fine. In writing I believe I prefer it myself. I'm merely saying that it is a matter of style.
    Again, you have it backwards. Someone said that only "fewer" was correct for countables a little more than 200 years ago. It was at that time that people began to say that "less" was incorrect. In other words, "less" has been used, as it is still used today, for over a thousand years, and that is why people continue to use it that way in spite the efforts of grammarians to "stamp it out".

  16. illuminaut Senior Member

    San Francisco
    I agree that adding "old" changes it completely. When you're referring to the age of people or objects, than "years" refers to a continous spectrum of time. However, I think whodunit's objection that we say "for many years" as opposed to "for much years" is fascinating.
  17. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    I didn't mean to describe that I favor "fewer" when talking about countable things. From what I have experienced, most people use "less than 10 people," however wrong that might be. It sounds good to me and it does to many natives, which I was able to gather from this thread. If you think "fewer than three birds" sounds better than "less than ...," fine. However, you seem to be inconsequent regarding other examples, such as the one with "years".
  18. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    Who, actually Englishman is being 100% consistent IDIOMATICALLY. In every situation in which he says he PREFERS "fewer", "fewer" sounds fine to me. This is the problem.

    Native English speakers will not use "fewer" in place of "less" when it truly sounds wrong. Do you understand? It's a weird thing. If "less" is clearly the only choice, then we will all use it without knowing why.

    I assure you, being fair, that "fewer than 10 people" is 100% correct and sounds fine. I would use it myself, though probably only in writing. I simply won't say that it is the ONLY correct choice.

    "Fewer than three birds" also sounds fine to me. Please remember that my father's side of the family was English, my mother's American. I'm used to hearing two different sets of speech patterns. :)

    I am certain you will find "fewer" used more often in the UK. I base this opinion on experience, from years of reading and listening. This is a little like "shall", which most definitely is used more often in the UK and other places where BE is dominant.

    This is fine: "Fewer than 10 people came to lessons today. I expected 13."

    My only point is that I don't think this is wrong:

    "Less than 10 people came to lessons today. I expected 13."

    I'm always on the side of choices. Essentially I am a "language-liberal". ;)

    I'm making these points because it is never my intent to imply that people who speak and write English correctly are using something that is wrong merely because of a difference in sytlistic preference. :)

  19. Schwichtenhövel

    Schwichtenhövel Banned

    Germany / German
    What a fine opinion! Of someone who has had the great luck to have BEAE-parents. Sounds like a bear. ROAR! Or AEBE-parents. Which are the plasma lipid concentrations of this family.

    So, 'fewer' should be from 'few', right? - few, fewer, fewest.

    'Less' should be from 'little', right? - little, less, least.

    Both can be used equally as adjectives/adverbs.

    There is: a little fewer xxx, a little more xxx. (xxx=Adjectives, and substantives - a little confusing...)

    There is: a little less xxx, a little more xxx.

    That means, for me, that there is no measurable difference between this and that one. Practically, there is no difference in praxi. Concerning the style, I would aggre with Gary (The Grand Piano), that 'few' sounds a bit more affected than does Puss in Boots.

    My opinion.
  20. Prairiefire

    Prairiefire Senior Member

    US (Midwest) - English
    A new question was just posed tonight:
    (emphasis mine)

    As a person who easily hears and says 'one less person,' my answer is that there is something about having the number right there in the phrase ("one less person,") that makes it comfortable in my ear.

    'I want to see fewer mistakes next time' and 'I want to see five less mistakes next time,' both sound acceptable to me; 'I want to see less mistakes' does not.

    "I have to buy fewer books this semester,' and "I have to buy three less books this semester,' both sound good to my ear; "I have to buy less books' sounds awful.

    I'm not talking rulebook here; I'm talking about the meanings that hearing the words creates between my ears. The little phrases 'one less', 'five less' and 'three less,' give me a sense of doing arithmetic--as in, the number of people last year, less one, equals the number this year.

    Perhaps that is why it seems comfortable, while 'less' without a specific number does not.

    (If someone can find this specific idea discussed above, please point to it. Thanks.)
  21. Twoflower

    Twoflower Member

    UK, English
    A point that has been made by an 18th century grammarian, and subsequently adopted by many other grammarians and ordinary English speakers, should surely be considered seriously: is it his erudition or the fact that he is dead that makes you think that his point is de facto invalid?

    Forget grammar, the meaning of less is "not as much", and the meaning of fewer is "not as many". You would never say "not as much as 10 people", although the meaning of "less" and "not as much" is identical. It is this inconsistency that many people object to - they may call their objection "grammar", but really it is sense.

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