fewer or less [with percentages]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by hannibal25, Jan 26, 2011.

  1. hannibal25 Member

    algeria arabic
    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. MuttQuad

    MuttQuad Senior Member

    New York, NY
    English - AmE
    I believe that "less" is preferable here because it describes 1%, not homicides.
  3. Robañero Senior Member

    SE Wisconsin, USA
    American English
    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.
  4. hannibal25 Member

    algeria arabic
    Thanks a lot for your help
  5. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    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.
  6. Parla Senior Member

    New York City
    English - US
    My vote goes to fewer. Homicides are body counts.
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2011
  8. boozer Senior Member

    "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. Majorbloodnock Senior Member

    South East England
    British English
    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. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    '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. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    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,
    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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