Friday, October 24, 2008

Less Is Fewer

Being a word lover, I'm fascinated by the English language, its rules, the way people break them, and the way they shift over time. English is an incredibly vital, alive language. It's constantly evolving, growing, absorbing, becoming. 

The meanings and pronunciations of words change from place to place and time to time in ways that can be both fascinating and/or frustrating. Ultimately, I'm a populist when it comes to usage. That is, while I hew to most grammatical rules and believe in using language carefully, I love the fluidity and the democracy of the language. I'm certainly not a grammar Nazi insisting people use words in a narrow, particular way. 

Still…I was reminded this weekend as I overheard a conversation at a restaurant, that I have my pet peeves. Misspoken phrases or mispronunciations or misuses that drive me up a wall. 

For example, even though double negatives have a history of grammatical correctness before Samuel Johnson began codifying grammar in his famous dictionary, they sound uneducated and wrong to me. 

There a couple others I can't think of now, but the misusage that really drives me up a wall—the one that really raises my hackles and makes my skin crawl—is the use of less when fewer should be used. This happens all the time and I just can't fucking stand it. (I never say anything, of course, because no one likes a grammar Nazi, but the teeth clench.)

Example? "You know less people than I do." No, I know fewer people than you do. Jackass.

It's a pretty simple rule to follow actually. Here's the deal, courtesy of e-Learn English
The words fewer and less are commonly confused in English. You'll be less confused and make fewer mistakes after reading through this lesson.

Fewer is used with countable nouns: people, animals, chairs, shoes.

There should be fewer books on the table.

I have fewer ideas than everyone else.

Fewer of us show up each year.

Less is used for uncountable, usually abstract nouns: money, happiness, snow, idealism.

I hope less snow falls this year.

We need more money and less debt.

I have less computer savvy than you.

You should spend less of your time complaining.

Less is also used with adjectives and adverbs:

I'm less happy than I used to be.

He runs less quickly than you.

The Bottom Line
Just remember that if the noun can be preceded by a number (one person, three dogs, six of us, nineteen problems), it should be modified with fewer. Otherwise, less is best.
Put another way, via Language Rules!:
Fewer should be used when the things you are describing are able to be counted. 
Less is used when is describes an adjective or when it is referring to something that is not countable; it is used to describe abstract or imprecise things like time, speed, quality, etc. 

A good rule of thumb, while certainly not hard and fast, is to look at what you’re referring to; if it’s singular, use less; if it’s plural, use fewer.

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