Zyra's front page //// Language //// Advice //// Good English Usage //// Site Index
Less of something? Shouldn't that be Fewer?!
Following the success of the explanation of the correct use of apostrophes, I thought it would be nice to add a further item in the fusspot series of pages, by explaining about the correct grammatical use of the words "less" and "fewer".
If there is a lower quantity of something, the word "less" can be used, provided the commodity in question is of a fluidic or continuous medium. For example: manure, custard, beer, expenditure, light, etc. It is incorrect to use "less" for items of a discrete nature, ie where there is a whole number of the item in question. For such things, the word "fewer" is used. For example: apples, dogs, cars, coins.
It's something that a surprising number of people get wrong, and yet, they needn't. The distinction between "less" and "fewer" is quite simple, and it's easy to get it right. However, when any major shopping company gets it wrong, it is embarrassing. To the educated audience, it comes across in a mind-jarring manner, rather like someone playing a violin out of tune. Hence, such places may find the demographics of their clientele moving slightly towards the less-educated end of the market.
The matter of "less" and "fewer" is quite distinct, although oddly there is no equivalent for "more", which is acceptable to use for stuff whether it be continuous or discrete in its nature.
To demonstrate the curious nature of "less" and "fewer", here's an example: Supposing a discussion starts off with Eggs. Obviously eggs are a discrete type, as they come in whole numbered quantities only. Therefore, if a pack of six eggs is depleted so there are now only five eggs, it is correct to say there are fewer eggs in the pack. In such a situation, a person saying "less eggs" shows a lack of refinement. Curiously, though, supposing all of the eggs are scrambled and the resulting amorphous material put on a serving plate at a buffet, it is perfectly grammatical for a person to help themselves to Less of the food in question. This is because the material has been changed from eggs (discrete whole numbers), to scrambled_egg (continuous floating-point amounts). Having a smaller portion is correctly described as having "less egg".
This may all sound very fussy, but once you know the simple way the grammatical rule is applied, there is no excuse for getting it wrong. Well, not unless you want to make your expression sound ignorant for artistic effect. For example: Them wot 'ad less eggs 'ad not bin brung-up proper.
To be honest, I don't care if you get these things right or wrong, but I would like you to know what's right and wrong, so you can make an informed choice. There should be less ignorance, and then there would be fewer people making mistakes. As a side-point, I believe there should be more free range eggs, and fewer factory-farmed battery-chicken eggs!
Also in the pedantic series: apostrophes - how to avoid slipping up on the greengrocer's banana's skin!
Also, the meaning of the word Whilst, now the truth can be told!
Shame be upon the searchy-things for demoting this page just because it had a few capital letters in it! Now let's see what they make of Compliment and Complement, which are quite different words and not alternative spellings of the same word.