number is much [less / lower / fewer]? than the number of

Discussion in 'English Only' started by prawer, Nov 3, 2011.

  1. prawer Member

    English - US
    Hi Everybody,

    Native speaker and first time poster, editing a book chapter and can't seem to decide on the appropriate word choice in this line:

    "the number of openings at any time is much lower than the number of people who ...."

    I read this and was wondering if it should be lower, less, or fewer. My impulse is that it's either lower or less, but I wasn't sure. Taking a synchronic approach, I tested google, and "less" is more prevalent in vanilla google, while "lower" is more prevalent in google scholar. In case it makes a difference, the audience for this chapter is supposed to be somewhere between middlebrow and academic. Obviously, openings and people are both countable, but I'm still not sure on how to decide if it's appropriate to call a number 'low'. One of those cases when my native intuition fails me.

    Can anyone help?


  2. Egmont Senior Member

    Massachusetts, U.S.
    English - U.S.
    The number cannot be less or fewer. Those terms would describe the openings themselves, not their number. A number can only be lower (or smaller, or closer to zero, or ...).

    If you want to rephrase the sentence, you can write "there are fewer openings ... ." The term "fewer" includes the concept of a number.

    "Less" cannot possibly be used. It describes the amount of an uncountable noun: less water, less sand, less equipment. It is not used with countable nouns, like job openings.
  3. prawer Member

    English - US
    Thanks egmont! Exactly the delineation I needed - that the words I'm comparing are "numbers." Great explanation.
  4. Prower Banned

    What about "lesser"? Can it be "a lesser number"?
  5. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    What do you want "lesser number" to mean, Prower?
  6. Prower Banned

    I wouldn't dare to want it to mean))) It's just that "lesser" modifies countable nouns while "less" uncountable. So "a lesser number" would mean "a smaller number". But it's only a guess of mine.
  7. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    Yes, lesser number is fine
    or "A lesser number of people came than was expected."
  8. velisarius Senior Member

    British English (Sussex)
    PaulQ, your example is not really valid in this context. "Greater and lesser numbers"are terms used in maths, and are not the same as "bigger and smaller". "Lesser" is not used so much, except in a phrase like "the lesser of two evils". We would normally say "a smaller number of..."
  9. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    To remove any confusion that you might mean "only in maths", as a Google n-gram search of a lesser number of, a greater number of (to exclude the general maths use) will show, that statement would be better qualified as "Greater and lesser numbers"are terms, often but not always, used in maths."

    I will admit that there is a greater number of "greater number ofs" than lesser number ofs :)
  10. Prower Banned

    It reminds me of the saying: The subjuntive mood is dead! But it takes a little time and action to find out that both statements are misleading.
  11. velisarius Senior Member

    British English (Sussex)
    I'm very sorry, my mistake. I meant to say that the particular example you gave was from a mathematical context that I also found, and is not really representative of everyday use of "lesser".


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