Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Quick 5 Point Novel Guide to LESS vs. FEWER

We have all seen the sign in the super market that says "10 items or less", but do you ever wonder if it is grammatically correct?

Well, let's find out in:

A Quick 5 Point Guide to LESS vs. FEWER

1. Definitions

Firstly, let’s be very clear regarding the differences in the definitions of Less and Fewer. Less is a smaller amount of; not as much,  "The less time spent there, the better"; whereas, fewer is a small number of, "May I ask a few questions?"

This is the key difference Less is referring to an uncountable amount and Fewer is referring to a countable amount.

2. Traditional Rule for Less and Fewer

With the definitions in mind we can review the traditional, simple, rule for Less and Fewer. 

Less is used for an amount you cannot count and Fewer is used you things you can count.

You can’t count water, so you can see one glass contains less water. You can count the glasses and there are fewer glasses of water on the right hand side of the table.

You can’t count air, so you know when there is less air in the room. You can count people and know if there were fewer people in the room the air quality might improve.

Eating less candy leads to fewer calories.

3. The “Singular Versus Plural” Rule

Using the traditional rule does run in to some exceptions and to get around these it is better (and I think easier) to use less for singular nouns and fewer for plural nouns.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using the “singular or plural” framework.

For the easy nouns, it works the same way:

Singular: Less    
Water is-->less water     
Air is-->less air
Candy is-->less candy

Plural: Fewer
Glasses are-->fewer glasses
People are-->fewer people
Calories are-->fewer calories

4. Time, Money, Distance, and Weight

The traditional rule does not work for Time, money, distance, and weight because they take less, but when you use the “singular or plural” rule, time, money, distance, and weight all fall in line.

Although a hundred dollars is countable we routinely ignore that fact and think of them as singular amounts:

- One hundred dollar is not going to go far at Disney.
- I think 10 miles is a long run.
- Three hours is a long time to watch football.

They’re singular and they take less:

- We spent less than one hundred dollars.
- I ran less than 10 miles.
- The football lasted less than three hours.

5. Controversies

Percent, I feel, can be added to this list of plural nouns that denotes measure because percentage itself is an amount that cannot be counted because, theoretically, it is infinitely divisible. If there are 27 people and only 5 are women there are less that 20 percent women because five divided by 27 and multiplied by 100 is not countable.

Finally, 10 Items or Less, has caused many an argument on line. My thoughts on this argument are, if someone has eleven items, and I wanted to know the content of their basket I would ask: What ARE the eleven items? Not, What IS the eleven items? 

Therefore, it should be 10 items or FEWER.

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