A CORRESPONDENT OF MINE RECENTLY HAD THIS TO SAY:

I’m appalled at the increasing use of less when fewer would be more appropriate. I was taught that if you could count them (e.g. people at a meeting) you used fewer; if you couldn’t count it (e.g. sugar) you used less. It seems that the trend is to use less for everything . . . I can’t wrap myself around using less when fewer seems so right to me.

She asked me to comment.

The traditional rule is indeed to use fewer with things that can be counted. For example:

  • Fewer than ten minutes remain.
  • Fewer people go to church now.
  • Fewer than a hundred tickets were sold.
  • Drink fewer glasses of alcohol.

Traditional usage says that we use less in other situations. For example:

  • Less time remains.
  • Church attendance is less than it was.
  • Ticket sales were less than last year.
  • Drink less alcohol.

It gets more complex though. The American Heritage Book of English Usage has this to add:

You can use less than before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: less than three weeks, less than $400, less than 50 miles.

Still with us? Heritage continues:

You can sometimes [when exactly? – TN] use less with plural nouns in the expressions no less than and or less. Thus you can say No less than thirty of his colleagues signed the letter and Give your reasons in twenty-five words or less.

Who’s still clear on when to use fewer and when to use less? Not many, huh? I’m not surprised. Neither am I.

So now we come to the meat of the issue. Has this traditional usage become too complex to bother with? Can a distinction that’s too subtle or too complex ever be more trouble than it’s worth?

Now that’s a genuinely interesting linguistic question. (OK, I can see you rolling your eyes at that. It’s actually a remarkably dull question for anyone who has a life, but we’re talking about linguists and grammarians here!)

Rather than get into a knock-down debate on the subject, let me just say this: regardless of any linguistic reasons for keeping such a distinction, actual day-to-day usage is changing. Fewer (or is that less?) people are making such distinctions.

Language changes, and it does this whether we want it to or not. Just eavesdrop on a group of teenagers. Do you understand everything they say? No. Neither do I. Neither did our parents.

Language changes, and one of the ways it changes is that people get lazy about pedantic distinctions. I’m not saying that it’s right or desirable, merely that it’s inevitable.

— Tim North

You’ll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North’s much applauded range of e-books. More information is available on his website. www.scribe.com.au/ebooks.html
 
 

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