An E-mail I Got About 'Less' and 'Fewer'

I got another e-mail from a column reader recently imploring me to school everyone on “less" and “fewer.” The request, of course, was written from the perspective of someone who’s sick and tired of hearing people say things like “10 items or less” instead of “10 items or fewer.” And I’m the hired goon who’s supposed to whip everyone else into shape (no mind that hired goons actually get, you know, paid).

So, once again, I had to explain that this belief someone has held so dear for so long isn’t exactly true.

Look up “less” in Webster’s New World and you’ll see immediately that it can be a synonym for “fewer.”

So it's not necessarily wrong to say "10 items or less." Still, e-mails like these always give me an excuse to address a more interesting issue with “less” and “fewer” – the idea that the difference is all about count nouns vs. mass nouns.

People who say that “10 items or less” is wrong often believe it’s because “less” is for quantities – stuff like water, courage, money, and food. These are called mass nouns. Conversely, these folks think that “fewer” is for countable things, called count nouns  -- bananas, guns, friends, dollars, etc.

Ninety-nine percent of the time that explanation works. But it’s actually not quite right. The traditional distinction between less and fewer isn't about mass nouns vs. count nouns. It's about singular things vs. plural things.

Mass nouns usually are singular: You say you have less money not because money is a mass noun but because money is singular. You say you have fewer dollars not because dollars is a count noun but because it is plural.

That makes a difference in a situation like this: Say you’re in the express lane and you realize you have 11 items, so you decide to remove one. According to the mass-noun/count-noun explanation, you now have one *fewer* item because “item” is a count noun.

But that’s wrong. You actually have one less item. That’s because “less” modifies singular things like “item” even as “fewer” modifies
plural things like “items.”

Of course, that’s if you want to follow the sticklers.

If you want to follow the dictionary, you don’t have to worry about it at all.



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