By Clover Carroll
Are there fewer stripes than stars on Old Glory, or less stripes? Have we seen less wildlife in our yards this season, or fewer wildlife? The confusion about when to use less and when to use fewer seems to be on the increase, and less is definitely winning the contest—resulting in grating comparisons and sloppy writing. “Express Lane: 10 items or less,” the grocery store sign proclaims, or “There are less movies about the Revolutionary period than any other in American history” the newspaper attests. Do they care that they sound ignorant? Do you know which to use when?
You’ll be pleased to know that this is one of the simpler grammatical guidelines, and one of the easiest to remember. Use fewer for things you can count, and use less for things you can’t. I have seen fewer deer since moving to a subdivision, but less grass. You can’t count salt, so I would put less of it in my potato salad; but you can count teaspoons of salt, so I would add fewer of them. We might drink less lemonade, but fewer glasses of lemonade; we would never wish for fewer fireworks, but we might like less noise. Another way to look at it is to ask whether the noun is singular v. plural: use less with singular concepts, like sand or pie, and fewer with plural ones, like waves or cherries. An easy way to remember the rule, courtesy of Oxford Dictionaries (www.oxforddictionaries.com), is “not as much is less; not as many is fewer.” I have less coffee on hand, so I can make fewer cups of it. There was less traffic in the past than now, which meant fewer cars on the road.
But just to muddy the waters, concepts involving measurement—such as time, distance, money, and weight—provide exceptions to this rule. Although the individual units of these concepts can be counted, we think of them as singular amounts, so that “the baby weighed less than 20 pounds” and “Staunton is less than 50 miles from Crozet” are considered correct. Using “under” might be a good way to avoid the issue altogether! The New York Times stylebook explains it this way: “Also use less with a number that describes a quantity considered as a single bulk amount: ‘The police recovered less than $1,500; It happened less than five years ago; The recipe calls for less than two cups of sugar’” (afterdeadline.blogs.ny times.com). As far as I’m concerned, most of these examples could go either way; it is fine to say “we have less than $1000 in the bank,” but I prefer “we have fewer than $1000 in the bank.” In either case, we have less money!
According to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, it appears that this rule originated in 1770 as the personal preference of one influential language lover. “This Word [less] is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. ‘No Fewer than a Hundred’ appears to me, not only more elegant than ‘No less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper,” wrote one Mr. Baker—who would probably be surprised at his influence over two centuries later! For better or worse, the use of fewer for countable items has since become the standard in formal writing. “The bill will not pass with 60 votes or fewer” is much preferred over “60 votes or less.”
And while we’re on the subject of comparisons, be sure to complete them. Whether you observe that there were fewer people at last year’s Independence Day Celebration or less people, the question becomes, fewer than what? To complete this comparison, the writer should add “there were fewer people at last year’s Independence Day Celebration than this year’s.” We are constantly being told on TV that “more people choose Crest” or “more doctors recommend aspirin.” More than what? Than any other drug? Than physical therapy? More doctors than chiropractors? The point is that without completing the thought, the comparison becomes meaningless.
An excellent example of the correct usage of less and fewer came in a recent article by Mary Stickley-Godinez in the Gardening section of The Daily Progress. “And, just so you know, ‘full sun’ means a total of six hours of sunlight [per day]…. Any less than that (referring to sunlight) is ‘partial sun.’ Fewer than three hours of sunlight is considered ‘shade.’” I hope this demonstrates that the correct choice between less and fewer leads to more graceful expression and a more elegant style. So, for my July 4th picnic I would prefer less cole slaw, but fewer ribs; fewer hot dogs, but less barbecue. And definitely more watermelon! Are there less good writers in journalism today, or fewer? You decide. I would like to see fewer errors in what I read—less vagueness, and more clarity. And thanks to reader Jerry Plisko for this topic idea!