"Less" or "fewer": Is there still
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correspondent of mine recently had this to say:
I'm appalled at the increasing use of less when
fewer would be more appropriate. I was taught
that if you could count them (people at a meeting)
you used "fewer"; if you couldn't count
it (sugar) you used "less."
seems that the trend is to use less for everything.
I can't wrap myself around using "less"
when "fewer" seems so right to me.
asked me to comment.
traditional rule is indeed to use "fewer"
with things that can be counted. For example:
Fewer than ten minutes remain.
* Fewer people go to church now.
* Fewer than a hundred tickets were sold.
* Drink fewer glasses of alchohol.
usage says that we use "less" in other
Less time remains.
* Church attendence is less than it was.
* Ticket sales were less than last year.
* Drink less alchohol.
gets more complex though. The American Heritage
Book of English Usage has this to add:
You can use "less than" before a plural
noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or
distance: "less than three weeks", "less
than $400", "less than 50 miles".
with us? Heritage continues:
You can sometimes [When exactly? - TN] use "less"
with plural nouns in the expressions "no less
than" and "or less". Thus you can
say "No less than 30 of his colleagues signed
the letter" and "Give your reasons in
25 words or less".
still clear on when to use "fewer" and
when to use "less"?
Not many huh? I'm not surprised. Neither am I. :-)
now we come to the meat of the issue. Has this traditional
usage become too complex to bother with? Can a distinction
that's too subtle or too complex ever be more trouble
than it's worth?
that's a genuinely interesting linguistic question.
(Okay, I can see you rolling your eyes at that.
It's actually a remarkably *dull* question for anyone
who has a life, but we're talking about linguists
and grammarians here!)
than get into a knock-down debate on the subject,
let me just say this. Regardless of any linguistic
reasons for keeping such a distinction, actual,
day-to-day usage *is* changing. Fewer (or is that
"less"?) people are making such distinctions.
use Google to obtain some insight. In each of the
pairs below, the top one is (in most contexts) the
usage preferred by traditional grammar. Let's see
how frequent each usage is:
people": 282,000 (72%)
"less people": 111,000 (28%)
accidents": 15,300 (80%)
"less accidents": 3,890 (20%)
computers": 3,130 (55%)
"less computers": 2,580 (45%)
days": 42,400 (75%)
"less days": 14,000 (25%)
grammar is still winning this one, but for how long?
changes, and it does this whether we want it to
Just eavesdrop on a group of teenagers. Do you understand
everything they say? No. Neither do I. Neither did
changes, and one of the ways it changes is that
people get lazy about pedantic distinctions. I'm
not saying that it's right or desirable, merely
that it's inevitable. :-)
find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's
much applauded range of e-books. More information
is available on his web site, and all books come with
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