"Less" or "fewer": Is there still a difference?
A correspondent of mine recently had this to say:
She asked me to comment.
The traditional rule is indeed to use "fewer" with things that can be counted. For example:
usage says that we use "less" in other
It gets more complex though. The American Heritage Book of English Usage has this to add:
Still with us? Heritage continues:
still clear on when to use "fewer" and
when to use "less"?
So 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?
Now 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!)
Rather 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.
Let's 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:
Traditional grammar is still winning this one, but for how long?
changes, and it does this whether we want it to
Language 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. :-)
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