Less and Fewer Rant

I keep saying to myself that I am not a grammar-nazi.  I guess that is just wishful thinking.

I read Eats, Shoots and Leaves recently, and I realized that I was a punctuation nit-picker.  I also realized that I really do prefer the Oxford comma.

Now, on to the biggest issue of the day.  It’s something I see more and more often: the misuse of less and fewer. I see it in the newspaper all the time.  Slashdot, digg and other web forums are notorious for misusing not only less and fewer but commas and other punctuation as well as grammar (“he don’t know nothing” *cringe*).

Here is a quick write-up from the Wiktionary:

The difference between less and fewer is that the former refers to an amount, while the latter refers to a numbered quantity of undivided items. Much confusion exists around these two terms, in part due to the fact that they share the same antonym: more.

Less is correctly used with:

  • Things that can’t be counted, such as water or patience, as in “She has less patience than he does.”
  • A number of units of continuous measurement, such as minutes, miles, kilograms, and the like, as in “he had to wait less than ten minutes,” “this coat cost less than ten dollars,” “he won by less than five percent of the vote,” and “he would settle for no less than 3.5 gallons of the highest-grade milk.” Although it is grammatically correct to use fewerless than 3 kilograms. in these cases the meaning changes to being fewer than that whole number and is only normally applicable to countable units, e.g. where sugar is sold in 1 kilogram packs and one limits a customer to fewer than 3 kilograms of sugar the implication is that only 2 kilograms might be purchased and 2.9 kilograms would be unacceptable despite being
  • Money, although all currencies have a precise minimum denomination. For example one might correctly request goods costing less than 45 cents.

With things that can be counted, fewer is considered to be the correct form, though it is common in casual writing and speech to use less. While some people would correct the statements “less than 3,000 people attended the rally,” “there are less cars on the road today,” and “please try to ask less questions,” they are not atypical.

The use of less is one of the most frequently made errors, even among otherwise educated native speakers. As for instance Suzie Dent relates in Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-861012-2,

When the Education Secretary Charles Clarke spoke of ‘less people’ on the Today programme when speaking of raising the standard of communication skills among British schoolchildren, the phone lines of Radio 4 lit up. Clarke came under attack not for his government’s policies, but for his use of ‘less’ rather than ‘fewer’ when referring to a plural noun. What hope for school standards, the programme listeners complained …

It is common to find less incorrectly applied to countable items in some commercial settings, e.g. a queue marked 10 items or less at a supermarket chain.

This makes me cringe every time I hear it.  It is permeating our culture and changing language so people who misuse it sound like the norm.

I needed to write about this, as I see it happening more and more every day.  I listen to NPR and sometimes they make this irritating error.  It makes people sound like they are stupid when they misuse the language.  I found this glaring error in Sunday’s paper (Saginaw News) from a national columnist.  Granted, it was on the editorial page, but since this person was a professional writer you’d think they’d know the difference.

I guess I tend to discount somebody’s ideas when they make major errors in their grammar.  I figure, if they can’t use the language correctly, then how correct is their thinking?

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe the English language (most specifically American English) is and should be changed to make things easier.  I, for one, will not bow that easily.

PS: jkhuggins, thank you for correcting my use of “for all intensive purposes” to “for all intents and purposes”.  We need more nit-picky people who are willing to correct others and not feel any shame.

1 thought on “Less and Fewer Rant”

  1. Hey, no problem. :)

    Seriously, though … I came by my nit-picking honestly and nobly. My advisor in graduate school was a brilliant man (still is, of course). He’s a Soviet Jew who emigrated to Israel and then the USA. Consequently, English was his *third* language (after Russian and Hebrew). He spoke English fluently and brilliantly … but he made a point of insisting that I correct him on matters of usage and grammar, knowing that he’d never get any better if everyone around him was too polite to speak up.

    As I said, his English was largely impeccable. Mostly, we talked about idiom and the subtleties of word choice. (“What’s the difference between a creek and a brook?”)

    Which gets me to the point. Most native speakers of English don’t learn English by reading rules in a book. They learn it by speaking it, and hearing it spoken around them. Thus, it’s not at all surprising that people don’t know the difference between “less” and “fewer”. It’s not necessarily laziness; it’s just ignorance. And I firmly believe that ignorance is curable, if treated properly. (Of course, I’m a professional educator, so I tend to think education is the cure for most things.)

    I’ve got my own issues … I’m told that I screw up “that” and “which” all the time. Less so when I use MSWord’s grammar checker. We all can learn a little something.

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