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fewer / less

In Britain the the winners of the Bad Grammar Awards have just been announced, and the prize has gone to Tesco, partly for a label on its toilet paper which said ‘More luxury, less lorries’, so I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the ‘fewer / less’ question.

According to the OED, people have been using less for countable nouns since the dawn of English, and it only seems to have become a golden rule after certain grammarians latched onto the observation of one Robert Baker, who in 1770 remarked that ‘No fewer than a hundred seems to me not only more elegant than No less than a hundred, but more strictly proper.’, while admitting that less ‘is most commonly used when speaking of a number’.

And it was used like this in at least two influential nineteenth century grammars - ‘less hopes’, ‘less parts or portions’ -  Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners, and ‘No less than five verbs’ - William Cobbett’s A Grammar of the English Language.

It obviously annoys a lot of people. One woman wrote on Tesco’s Facebook page that she ‘was unable to purchase’.

But I can’t help wondering why. There is absolutely no danger of ambiguity, and many of us use ‘less’ with countables informally. (And for many of us ‘Ten items or less’ sounds much more idiomatic than ‘Ten items or fewer’). Does this rule really have any functional basis, (we don’t need any distinctions for ‘more’ - more luxury, more lorries) or is it simply a rule for the sake of having a rule and just another excuse for finding fault with others?

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Never in the history of humane endeavour have so many owed so much to so less.

There were, apparently, a less people there

jayles May 4, 2014, 8:32pm

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Few is more

jayles May 4, 2014, 8:33pm

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If "fewer is more" means something other than "less is more", then we have a semantic distinction, but it's very small.

Is "few" is the result of Viking "package tours" ?

jayles May 5, 2014, 2:52am

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Until the late 18th Century, "less" was simply the opposite of "more" and "fewer" (the comparative of "few") was just an another way of expressing a similar meaning to "less" but with countable nouns.

But the two co-existed; you could have "less coins" (the opposite of having "more coins") or "fewer coins". The fewer/less argument results from deliberate and relentless "schoolmastering": engineering a false relationship between two entirely different words where none previously existed.

JJMBallantyne May 5, 2014, 11:47am

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Mea culpa!

Make that "just another way" not "just an another way".

JJMBallantyne May 5, 2014, 11:51am

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less means smaller (in size or number); fewer = smaller in number.
a) Her troubles were fewer than her husband's.
b) Her troubles were less than her husband's.
Doesn't really come up much though.

jayles May 5, 2014, 2:18pm

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I often wonder if idiomatic is sometimes being confused with idiotic. :-))

To me the distinction between less and fewer makes sense.
(Now WW will be thinking "Expected nothing else from HS!") :-))

Another annoying, and possibly related, practice is the confusion (especially in my native land) of amount and number.

A guide to more elegant speech:-
Fewer coins, less money.
Less rain, fewer raindrops.
A number of coins, an amount of money.
An amount of rain, a number of raindrops.

Hairy Scot May 5, 2014, 8:09pm

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HS - I would probably agree with you about 'in more elegant speech', but I'm not particularly concerned about being elegant in my speech, unless I'm in a formal situation (which is virtually never). In normal conversation I simply want to use natural, idiomatic English. And in casual speech I often catch myself saying 'less people', and I don't think I'm alone.

As well as the formal rules, we teach our students about register - different ways of talking or writing in different contexts - in other words degrees of formality (or elegance, if you like).

My argument with those who object to "Ten items or less", is that they seem to recognise only one register - formal. And when I'm in a supermarket, I'm not particularly looking for formal language.

But your bombshell is at the beginning - "I often wonder if idiomatic is sometimes being confused with idiotic." Just as well you put a double smiley after that one! This is Oxford Online's definition of 'idiomatic'

"Using, containing, or denoting expressions that are natural to a native speaker:"

And that's exactly how I use it. This is from Arrant Pedantry:

"It used to be that people used less when it sounded natural and nobody worried about it, but then some guy in the eighteenth century got the bright idea that we should always use one word for count nouns and one word for mass nouns, and people have been freaking out about it ever since."

And he goes on:

"Baker’s rule is appealing because it’s simple and (in my opinion) because it allows people to judge others who don’t know grammar."

And when I see some of the reactions to grammar 'mistakes' like this I think that last bit's exactly right. A those who judge are often completely ignorant as to how it became a rule in the first place.

One of the commenters on his blog suggested that "the less/fewer distinction, along with who/whom and other similar rules, strike me as needless — they don’t provide any information. They’re strictly niceties." - Which is fine, if niceties are what people feel is important. But some of us aren't so fussy.

Warsaw Will May 6, 2014, 10:14am

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Is the distinction between less and fewer and number and amount not similar to that between much and many?
"too much bacon" "too many eggs"

Hairy Scot May 6, 2014, 3:51pm

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Just by discussing the (entirely unfounded) grammatical relationship of "less" to "fewer", we are playing into the hands of the language pedants.

JJMBallantyne May 7, 2014, 10:35am

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And this raises a supplementary question. Does awarding 'bad grammar awards' really encourage people to get interested in grammar, or simply perpetuate the idea that grammar is about not making 'mistakes'.

It has been estimated that English grammar has anywhere between 1,500 and 3,000 rules, of which only maybe thirty are in the slightest bit controversial and turn up in these pages. Some of you may not know that if someone says 'She's bought an expensive new red silk headscarf' they are following a specific rule about adjective order. Native speakers simply wouldn't say 'A new silk red expensive headscarf'. This is the sort of grammar we have to teach foreign learners.

Many of the spelling mistakes made by native speakers, especially things like confusing 'your' and 'you're' or 'He must of forgotten' are just not made by foreign learners, because they usually have a better grasp of the theory of English grammar than native speakers. This is the sort of grammar learning we should be encouraging: understanding how English works, not worrying about the 5% or less of rules where there is a difference between the formal rule and everyday speech.

@HS - broadly speaking you're right with your analogy, but there is also 'more' where we make no distinction. And unlike less/fewer, there is no tradition of using one instead of the other. As has been said several tines before, until 1770 (and even later - see my quotes from two well-known early nineteenth century grammar books), the division between less and fewer was much less strict - although fewer is almost never used instead of less - 'I've got fewer money than yesterday' - I would suggest sounds far worse than - 'I've got less coins than yesterday'.

Incidentally, you missed out one important category from your grammar lesson - distances, numbers and money when seen as amounts rather than quantities -
less than ten miles (it could be eight and a half, for example) - the temperature was less than 10 degrees. - it cost less than $20 ($18.95, possibly), 'a few years less' (Byron), and countable nouns seen as amounts - 'they pay less taxes now' etc

In fact the rule is much more complex than at first sight - in maths, for example it always 'less' - 8 times 2 is less than 6 times 3. Numbers follow 'no less' more often than 'no fewer, eg: 'No less than 1,800 slaves' - (Times Literary Supplement), and some usage writers find this quite acceptable. 'One' is followed by 'less' - 'That's one less thing to worry about'. Wouldn't 'one fewer thing' sound rather strange there? And sometimes it's used just for variety - this is from the Illustrated London News - 'There are fewer industries and less job openings'.

In books, 'no less than N times' is much commoner than 'no fewer than N times'. And even more so before around 1800.*+times%2Cno+fewer+than+*+times&year_start=1600&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t2%3B%2Cno%20less%20than%20*%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20three%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20four%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20five%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20seven%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20six%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20eight%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20ten%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20nine%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20twelve%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20less%20than%20eleven%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B.t2%3B%2Cno%20fewer%20than%20*%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20four%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20three%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20five%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20six%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20seven%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20eight%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20ten%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20nine%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20eleven%20times%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20fewer%20than%20fourteen%20times%3B%2Cc0

All this, together with the fact that we also use 'less' in constructions like 'less well prepared than last time' makes even the occasions when strict grammarians would insist on the use of 'fewer' a lot less common than those when we would normally use 'less'. Which is also perhaps why 'fewer' can sometimes sound awkward to some people - we just don't use it that much.

Warsaw Will May 7, 2014, 12:27pm

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"Which is also perhaps why 'fewer' can sometimes sound awkward to some people"
There are also occasions when 'less' sounds awkward.
I'd submit that there is a place for both words and that it is beneficial to have a defined use for each of them.

Hairy Scot May 7, 2014, 1:39pm

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Ok, I'll try to learn not to be vary annoyed by "less lorries", "less tigers" etc., and I hope that this will be reciprocated if "fewer noise" and "fewer music" becomes similarly tolerated.

John Gibson May 8, 2014, 5:17pm

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Gosh, I just made a few mistakes in the last comment, didn't I? A case of "more haste, fewer speed" ....

John Gibson May 8, 2014, 5:20pm

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My take on it is that "fewer" + uncountable noun is nonsensical, as "fewer" implies countable number.

jayles May 8, 2014, 7:37pm

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I think most of us would agree on that.
The issue seems to be the use of less with a 'countable' noun.

Hairy Scot May 8, 2014, 11:02pm

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@HS "She had less family responsibilities" : one might (with a stretch) construe this as meaning the responsibilities were similar in number but less onerous; it is perhaps just a bit vaguer than "fewer responsibilities", although I wouldn't care to argue the toss.

"She had less responsibilities" does get several hits on google.

Whether one approves is one's own problem.

jayles May 9, 2014, 12:51am

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Sorry, PITE split up that Ngram link for some reason, but it works if you paste it into the address bar.

It occurred to me after I had written my previous comment that the reason that less often gets used instead of fewer and not vice versa might be that in the vast majority of cases, even for strict grammarians, less is the opposite of more. I'm not concerned with right or wrong here, just why so many people (me included) often want (probably subconsciously) to say less rather than fewer.

For less is the opposite more when it is as a determiner before uncountable nouns here (more sugar / less sugar, more money / less money), as a determiner used in other ways (more of a problem / less of a problem, a bit less talking and a bit more work), as a pronoun (it cost more / less than last time) , and also as an adverb - 'more expensive / less expensive, to read more / less than before'.

As I said before, even if we used fewer on every occasion it 'should' be used, these occasions are fairly few and far between compared with less. Which might have lead to less becoming an almost automatic opposite to more. Just a thought.

Warsaw Will May 9, 2014, 12:12pm

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I notice Tesco using the line, 'Better than half price'. 'Better than' in this sense is an Americanism that (I think) always means 'more than' not 'less than'.
Perhaps Americans will chime in and tell us if I'm talking rubbish or Tesco is.

Skeeter Lewis May 27, 2014, 3:40am

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@Skeeter Lewis - "More than, larger in amount or greater in rate, as in My new car can do better than 100 miles an hour , or The new plan will cut better than 15 percent of costs . Some authorities consider this usage colloquial and advise that it be avoided in formal writing. "

So you're certainly right about the American usage, although it seems to be a bit controversial. But I'm not sure why anyone would want to advertise something as 'more than half price', and I doubt Americans would use it this way.

All the entries on the first two pages of a (not search for 'better than half price' are British, and it's much the same at Google Images, so this seems to be primarily a British usage. And it definitely means 'less than' (although admittedly in some cases just less than).

This is from Tescos' website - Better Than Half Price - Was £3.00 Now £1.49 (tinned salmon).

Boots and Superdrug both use 'better than half price' too, and they also definitely mean 'less than':

Boots - Better than 1/2 price - £3.60, Save £6.40, Was £10.00 (moisturising cream)
Superdrug - Better than 1/2 price > 1.48, save £1.51, was £2.99 (anti-perspirant)

Warsaw Will May 27, 2014, 9:56am

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Thanks, Will. I think it's another instance of Brits misunderstanding American idiom and getting it bass-ackward.

Skeeter Lewis June 3, 2014, 10:55am

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@Skeeter Lewis - I don't really see why there should be any connection between the two - I doubt that many Brits even knew of the American idiom. Far more likely is that they've decided to avoid "less than half-price", just in case.

In fact, it's not as exclusively British as I had thought, as a quick visit to Google Books shows. This is from 1999 - "Alan and Patricia Wolff of Honolulu took advantage of these peculiar economics and snared a better-than-half-price deal on a ski-season time share in Park City, Utah"

Warsaw Will June 3, 2014, 11:20am

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it depends upon on how to use it....I...think?!....

Oliver Espartero June 19, 2014, 7:55pm

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Oliver Espartero June 19, 2014, 7:59pm

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Will - thanks for your post. I think that the sort of people who write advertising copy are aware of American slang and tend to pick it up. They just don't get it right.

Skeeter Lewis June 19, 2014, 11:50pm

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@Skeeter Lewis - I still don't know why you assume advertisers have picked up 'better-than-half-price' from a relatively obscure piece of American slang and 'got it wrong'? This expression makes perfect sense on its own, and there's no need at all to attribute it to the misunderstanding of anything. Except perhaps it allows you to get in a dig at 'the sort of people who write advertising copy'.

Warsaw Will June 20, 2014, 3:23am

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Correction - perhaps not so obscure, and colloquial would be a better description than slang.

NB context is everything:

"More than 100 mph" = better, if speed is what you want
"More than 30 mpg" = better in terms of fuel economy
"Less than half price" = better for the buyer

Consider how "better than asking price" can mean "more than" or "less than", depending on context (these are all from the first page at Google Search)

"I think it will do better than the asking price - if there are two collectors it could sky-rocket." = more than
"My aim as a professional photographer is make your property look $50K-$100K better than the asking price" = more than
"I bought mine on ebay and only paid about $95 for it which is much better than the asking price" = less than
"I asked one of the sales people if they could do better than the asking price of $30 on the tag, which they could. ($20)" = less than

Warsaw Will June 20, 2014, 3:44am

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Yes     No