Fewer vs. less: a grammatical rule that needs to die

by | Oct 21, 2016 | Language & grammar | 0 comments

Fewer vs. less is one of those rules that grammatical pedants love to correct you on.

If you have some chocolate bars, and you give me one (thanks!), would you then say you have fewer chocolate bars, or less chocolate bars?

Plenty of people who have studied formal grammar will tell you that in this case you absolutely, positively, must say ‘fewer’.

But I challenge those people to come up with a convincing reason why. Because, like so many rules of English, the only reason we do it is because a dead white guy said so.

Fewer vs. less: the official line

According to the rules of formal English grammar, you should use ‘fewer’ when referring to things you can count, and ‘less’ when referring to things you can’t.

So you would say ‘fewer chocolate bars’, ‘fewer raindrops’, or ‘fewer schools’, because you can count chocolate bars, raindrops and schools.

But you’d say ‘less diabetes’, ‘less rain’, and ‘less education’, because these are things you can’t count.

From a grammatical point of view, ‘chocolate bars’, ‘raindrops’ and ‘schools’, are what we call count nouns, while ‘diabetes’, ‘rain’ and ‘education’ are non-count nouns.

To work out if something is a count or non-count noun, stick a number in front of it and see if it still makes sense:

Five chocolate bars, five raindrops, five schools – makes sense.

Five diabetes, five rains, five educations – makes no sense.

So that’s the fewer/less rule as it stands: ‘fewer’ for nouns you can count, ‘less’ for nouns you can’t.

Enter the dead white dude

As far as anyone can tell, the fewer/less rule was invented by 16th-century English grammarian Robert Baker.

The little information I could find on Mr Baker suggests he was a sad old bore with no friends and a stick up his bum the size of a Saturn V rocket. Baker’s 1770 book Remarks on the English Language includes a plea to the King to set up a special academy to preserve the English language, because:

‘our Writers abound with Incorrectness and Barbarisms, for which such an Establishment might in a great measure be a cure.’

Yeah – a really fun guy to have over for dinner.

In the same book, Baker wrote the fateful words that would taunt students of English for centuries to come:

‘[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.’

So basically, Baker just thought using ‘fewer’ for things you can number sounded better. And for whatever reason, his opinion became a law of English grammar.

Why the fewer vs. less rule sucks:

1. We don’t need it

No one can honestly say that ‘fewer dogs’ is any easier to understand than ‘less dogs’.

Both terms are equally clear, and neither has any advantage over the other (except that typing ‘less’ will you a keystroke).

2. There are plenty of exceptions

In classic English language style, the fewer/less rule has some exceptions.

Firstly, it doesn’t apply to time, money, distance, weight or other measurements.

We don’t say ‘fewer than 5 kilometres’, we say ‘less than 5 kilometres’, even though ‘kilometre’ is a countable noun.

And no ‘one ever says ‘I’ll be there in fewer than 10 minutes’; it’s always ‘less than 10 minutes’.

The other exception is that ‘fewer’ doesn’t apply to singular nouns, only plurals. So we should say ‘fewer chocolate bars’ (because ‘chocolate bars’ is plural), but ‘one less chocolate bar (because ‘chocolate bar’ is singular).

Confused yet?

(For anyone determined to follow this ridiculous rule, Grammar Girl suggests thinking in terms of singular/plural, rather than countable/non-countable.)

3. Nobody actually sticks to it

Chances are you’ve never even heard of this rule before, and have been happily interchanging ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ your entire life.

Unsurprisingly, nobody ever has any trouble understanding what you mean.

Next time you’re at the supermarket, take a look at the sign for the express lane. Does it say ’10 items or fewer‘? No, it almost certainly says ’10 items or less‘.

(Unless you’re at a Marks & Spencer in the UK, of course – the chain changed their checkout sign to say ‘6 items or fewer’ after pedantic customers complained about the grammatical ‘error’. )

This is perhaps the best reason to lose the less/fewer distinction – it just doesn’t match the way most people actually write and speak.

So what should we do?

Simple – use either ‘less’ or ‘fewer’ when referring to countable nouns, and don’t apologise for it.

Both words are equally clear and valid, except perhaps to that pompous 18th-century bore Robert Baker.

English is a funny language. On the one hand, it’s ever-changing, and willing to embrace new words and adopt term from other languages.

On the other hand, it also has a lot of rules that don’t seem to exist for any reason other than because an old white guy said so.

Well, I’m not down with that.

I’m a firm believer in making writing as easy to understand as possible. If a particular grammatical rule makes writing clearer, I will follow it to Hell and back.

But if the rule is entirely arbitrary, like the fewer/less distinction, then I think we owe it to the world (especially the millions of non-English speakers trying to learn our language) to kill it off before it causes any more confusion.

I’ll be putting a few more rules like this in front of the firing squad over the next few months. If you’ve come across a language rule you can’t see a good reason for, send it to simon@copyoctopus.com and I will decide whether it should be spared or sentenced to death.

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