Jan 23 2023

Less vs Fewer

After publishing thousands of blog posts I have found that sometimes the most trivial topics garner the most debate, both in amount and intensity. I wouldn’t call it a rule, just a casual observation, likely rife with confirmation bias. But at the very least I am surprised sometimes by how vehemently people will argue about points that are ultimately subjective and of little importance.

Grammatical and semantic arguments tend to fall into that category. My speculation is that this is partly due to the fact that people’s brains literally get wired from exposure to language so that words and phrases just sound right or sound wrong. When someone else says or writes something that just feels wrong it can be extremely irritating. This feeling, in turn, leads us to act as if certain ways of saying things are inherently correct or incorrect, or at least “proper”. As might be expected, the internet is fertile ground for people to vent their grammatical peeves. This has also lead to a backlash against the “grammar nazis”, often in the context that whatever their linguistic peeve, it is not actually “correct” by any objective criteria.

I find this topic fascinating, primarily because it challenges the logic and reasoning we use to determine which linguistic forms are “proper and correct”. Language is endlessly complex and fascinating. It is an organic evolving thing, and we have a history of how it has changed over thousands of years.

The latest example I encountered of the “grammar wars” is the question of when it is proper to use “less” vs “fewer”. It came up because on the latest SGU episode Jay said “less hours of sleep” and I corrected him to say “fewer hours of sleep”. I did this mainly for the entertainment value, but I think the point is valid. My correction sparked some e-mail backlash, often pointing to references arguing that “less” is just fine in such usage. However I found some of the arguments used to be unsatisfying, and even hypocritical. Here is a quick overview of the discussion.

There is general agreement that “fewer” is used to refer only to a countable amount. You can have fewer apples than someone else, but not fewer water in your glass. The controversy comes from the use of “less”. Since about 1770, when this rule was suggested by Robert Baker, many grammarians have held that “less” should only be used to refer to magnitude or uncountable/collective amounts, and not countable numbers. So you can have less time to do your work, but if you are efficient you can do it in fewer hours. The question is – how absolute should Baker’s rule be?

Some grammarians do try to enforce the less/fewer rule absolutely, while other push back and call this obnoxious pedantry. Here is an example of the latter, which to me comes off as ironic meta-pedantry. The idea is to call the grammar pedants not just obnoxious but wrong. However, these arguments are not very compelling. For example, they argue that the broader use of less to refer to either magnitude or amount goes back at least a thousand years, so that interpretation should take precedence. But that’s not how language works. We don’t speak English the way it was spoken a thousand years ago. Language changes and evolved. Also, there have been deliberate attempts to standardize English, which was much more chaotic in spelling and grammar prior to wide adoption of the printed word. Should we dismiss all attempts at standardization as pedantry?

At the same time, language is a living thing and cannot be forever constrained by imposed rules. People alter language to make it more efficient and poetic, and so it evolves. Common usage, to a degree, determines “correctness”. Further still, we can make a distinction between “correct” and “proper”. Sometimes grammar is just wrong. I have heard people say “I seen” instead of “I saw” or “I have seen”. That’s just wrong and needs to be corrected. (Of course, if enough people started saying that it would become correct, but we are not there.) For many other linguistic choices there are multiple acceptable options. You can choose to either pronounce or not pronounce the “t” in “often”. You can say “octopuses” if you want.

And then there’s the gray zone, where we can meaningfully argue about whether something is correct or just arbitrarily proper in some context. For example, you can argue that “ain’t” is a culturally established and acceptable vernacular in some subcultures. But you will not be reading this word in the New York Times. The NYT can enforce a style that they deem proper for their paper. There are other styles that are less formally established but still culturally generally adhered to. You likely won’t be hearing a lot of slang in the halls of academia.

So where does less/fewer fall? One reasonable and nuanced approach is to say that Baker’s rule is a good default. When in doubt, use less to refer to magnitude and fewer to refer to number. However, there can be some exceptions for less. I am not bothered by the “10 items or less” signs at grocery stores. If it sounds right and is unambiguous, go for it. But if you want to sound proper and formal you might want to stick to the rule. I also understand from some of my listeners down under that using “less” to refer to number is common practice. So these rules are very culture-dependent.

In the end I am not a grammar absolutist, but neither am I an anything goes grammar anarchist. Perhaps the best approach is to know when the rules need to be closely adhered to, to otherwise be a loose grammarian but without shame or judgement, and to be open to the fact that language evolves and there are many acceptable subcultures within language use.

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