Fewer vs. less
In prescriptive grammar fewer is the prescribed comparative to be used in relation to discretely quantifiable nouns, i.e., count nouns. The comparative less, it is argued, should be used when speaking of a grammatically singular noun (including mass nouns). Descriptive grammarians, however, are only concerned with the extent that this distinction applies in actual human usage.
The prescriptivist distinction can be seen in this example: "There is less flour in this canister", but "There are fewer cups (grains, pounds, bags, etc.) of flour in this canister", as flour is a mass noun unless it is measured in a unit (in this case cups). However, in the case of singular but discretely quantifiable nouns as in "one less cup of flour in this canister", the adjective fewer should be used, the prescriptivists argue.
The comparative less is used with both count and uncount nouns in most informal discourse environments and in most dialects of English, and in these environments, the word fewer is hardly used at all. Many supermarket checkout line signs, for instance, will read "10 items or less"; others, however, will use fewer in an attempt to conform to the prescription. A British supermarket chain replaced its "10 items or less" notices at checkouts with "up to 10 items" to avoid the issue. It has also been noted that it is less common to favour "At fewest ten items" over "At least ten items" – a potential inconsistency in the "rule", and a study of online usage seems to suggest that the distinction may, in fact, be semantic rather than grammatical.
Less has always been used in English with counting nouns. Indeed, the application of the distinction between less and fewer as a rule is a phenomenon originating in the 18th century. On this, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes:
- As far as we have been able to discover, the received rule originated in 1770 as a comment on 'less': This Word 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. (Baker 1770). Baker's remarks about 'fewer' express clearly and modestly – 'I should think,' 'appears to me' – his own taste and preference....Notice how Baker's preference has been generalized and elevated to an absolute status and his notice of contrary usage has been omitted."
- Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit yereccan mayon.
- With less words or with more, whether we may prove it.
The Cambridge Guide to English Usage notes that the "pressure to substitute fewer for less seems to have developed out of all proportion to the ambiguity it may provide in noun phrases like less promising results". It describes conformance with this pressure as a shibboleth and the choice "between the more formal fewer and the more spontaneous less" as a stylistic choice.
- Liberman, Mark (2006), If it was good enough for King Alfred the Great..., Language Log.
- Tesco is to change the wording of signs on its fast-track checkouts to avoid any linguistic dispute, BBC, August 2008.
- "less, fewer". Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage (2nd ed.). Merriam-Webster. 1995. p. 592. ISBN 0-87779-132-5.
- "fewer or less", The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 205, ISBN 978-0-521-62181-6.