Fewer vs. less
According to prescriptive grammar, "fewer" should be used (instead of "less") with nouns for countable objects and concepts (discretely quantifiable nouns or count nouns). According to this rule, "less" should only be used with a grammatically singular noun (including mass nouns). However, descriptive grammarians (who describe language as actually used) point out that this rule does not correctly describe the most common usage of today or the past and in fact arose as an incorrect generalization of a personal preference expressed by a grammarian in 1770.
An extreme application of the prescriptivist rule can be seen in the examples "there is less flour in this canister" and "there are fewer cups (grains, pounds, bags, etc.) of flour in this canister", which are based on the reasoning that flour is uncountable whereas the unit used to measure the flour (cup etc.) is countable. Nevertheless, even most prescriptivists accept the most common usage "there are less cups of flour in this canister" and prescribe the rule addition that "less" should be used with units of measurement (other examples: "less than 10 pounds/dollars"). Prescriptivists would however consider only "fewer cups of coffee" to be correct in a sentence such as "there are fewer cups of coffee on the table now", where the cups are countable separate objects, although most people now and in the past use "less" even in such cases.
Some prescriptivists argue that even the extremely rare and completely unidiomatic "one fewer" should be used instead of "one less" (both when used alone or together with a singular, discretely quantifiable noun as in "there is one less cup on this table"), but Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage clearly states that common usage dictates "one less" in all cases.
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.
- "less, fewer". Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage (2nd ed.). Merriam-Webster. 1995. p. 592. ISBN 0-87779-132-5.
- 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.
- "fewer or less", The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 205, ISBN 978-0-521-62181-6.