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Less vs. fewer

By Anne Curzan
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A dear relative of mine has been known to get upset in grocery stores by the sign that reads: “10 items or less.” Are you a speaker who shares this concern? Or are you a speaker who really isn’t sure why the people who are concerned about the sign are feeling so concerned?

What is wrong with a sign that reads: “10 items or less?”

The answer comes down to a distinction between countable nouns and uncountable nouns. Linguists describe nouns like “book” as countable nouns: one book, two books, three books. And the idea is that with countable nouns you would use “fewer.” So, you would have three books or fewer.

Then you have uncountable nouns, also known as mass nouns, like “water.” You can’t count water, so you either have more water or less water.

In sum, the traditional rule has been that with countable nouns you use “fewer”; with uncountable nouns you use “less.” (A very similar rule holds for the words “number” and “amount”: “Number” would be used for countable nouns, and “amount” would be used for uncountable nouns.)

However, the fact is that “less” has been encroaching on the territory of “fewer” for hundreds of years. Just the other day I heard an advertisement for a disinfectant that would result in “less germs.” Consider in academia when we say something like: “Write an essay of 500 words or less.” And all of us (or almost all of us, as far as I know) will say: “Oh that’s one less thing to worry about.” Germs, words, and things are all countable, so it should be “fewer germs,” “500 words or fewer,” and “one fewer thing to worry about,” but that’s not what we say. In some cases, it just may feel more correct to us to use “less” than “fewer” even with countable nouns.

As a historian of the English language, I sometimes speculate about what the future might hold, and I can imagine a couple of scenarios for how things might play out with the “less/fewer” distinction. One scenario is that over time “less” continues to encroach on the territory of “fewer” and eventually “fewer” gets lost from the language. The distinction between “less” and “fewer” proves not to be essential enough for speakers to preserve it.

Right now, “fewer” appears to be quite healthy, especially in the written language.

In another possible future, speakers and writers can use both “fewer” and “less” with countable nouns. And it could become something of a formality distinction in which “fewer” is more formal and “less” is more informal.

It will be interesting to watch this part of English grammar develop over time to see whether these two words can continue to coexist with countable nouns the way they do right now, or whether in the long haul “less” will survive and “fewer” won’t.

This video originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan’s discussions of language.

Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan

ANNE CURZAN is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education. In addition, she serves as co-director of the joint PhD Program in English and Education at U-M. She is featured on the weekly segment "That's What They Say" on Michigan Radio.

COMMENTS

  • Jeffrey Brookner - JD 94

    One of the primary reasons I use the Wegmans grocery store is that their express-lane signs read “10 Items or Fewer.” This makes for one “less” thing to irritate me.

    Reply

  • Monique Rothschild

    I was annoyed just a little while ago when I heard an NPR reporter use “less” instead of “few.” Sorry, but I cannot remember what the story was about. However, I do know that the host of “Splendid Table,” among many others, always says: “We’ve got.” It makes me groan. Isn’t sufficient to say: “We have?” They wouldn’t say: “We have got.” Would they? I have other peeves, but this should suffice for now!

    Reply

  • Lea Stern

    To Monique Rothschild: Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the British use “have got” all the time. Still, I’m also irritated by the less/fewer misuse, which seems to crop up everywhere.

    Reply

  • Nancy Frost

    This was a wonderful little video. There should be more like it and they should be required viewing for any U-M employee who comes in contact with the public. Poor grammar has become an epidemic. I cringe every time I hear someone say “I have came,” “I seen,” or “I have did” when speaking to a patient, family member, or an outside agency. This is just general elementary school grammar, nowhere near as complex as less vs. fewer. It makes us all seem a little less credible.

    Reply

  • Norma Stevlingson

    I am a university professor and am dismayed all the time when I hear my colleagues misuse their native language by saying such things as “amount of people,” “less classes,” or “between she and I,” which is one of my big peeves. It causes me to shudder to realize younger faculty members have never diagrammed a sentence.

    Reply

  • John Bleecker - 1973

    Perhaps the sign should read “Maximum of Ten Items”. ;)

    Reply

  • Monique Rothschild

    PS. I closed out and then saw a headline in this newsletter. It stated: I got accepted. Surely it is correct to say: I was accepted or I got an acceptance letter.

    Reply

  • John King - 1965

    Less/Fewer but what about thinking positively. :-)

    More/ ? It seems that more has already taken over for both countable and uncountable nouns.

    Is less more?

    Reply

  • Eser Uzun / Belding

    English is not my mother tongue but I have been speaking it for most of my life. I remember thinking about the issue raised about the number of items being less or fewer. However, over the years I have generally felt uncomfortable when fewer is used for countable in high numbers, like in ’500 or fewer words’, because of the word few reflecting a number we can count with our fingers. I had never thought of the actual rule about the difference between countable vs non countable nouns, but was thinking of using ‘fewer’ for countable nouns where the number can easily be grasped without sitting and counting. May be I had never learned it at any time in my British Grammar school… may be I was absent on the day it was specified.

    Reply

  • Sarah Helge - 1960/1973

    This misuse of our language is almost as annoying as meaningless, superfluous hand gestures. Really? Quite a distraction there, Professor.

    Reply

  • Julie Kraus - 1973

    My biggest pet peeve is that so many people and media are using ‘that’ instead of ‘who.’ I’m feeling that ‘who’ will soon be eliminated by ‘that’ (as mentioned with ‘fewer’ compared with ‘less’). I would love to see a video about this. Thx so much.

    Reply

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