Thursday, 4 November 2010

Less fuss, fewer complaints

We don't often go to Morrisons supermarket, but we called in today. The sign at the checkout said, '15 items or less'. Did my hackles rise and did I vow never to desert Waitrose again? Well, actually, no. I'm getting a bit bored with all the fuss about the distinction between less and fewer. As a writer, I have to get it right, of course. If I don't my copy editor would change it anyway!

And it's not actually that difficult. Here are three simple rules.

1. Less goes with a comparison of two measurements or two quantities – quantities like weight, volume, population. Fewer goes with cardinal numbers – numbers describing a set of things. So I had less cereal for breakfast this morning, but there were fewer cereals to choose from than usual.

2. Use less if the sentence used to make the comparison uses a singular verb and fewer if it uses a plural. So, there is less traffic, but there are fewer cars.

3. Use less if you are talking about how much, and fewer if you are talking about how many. So, how much money do you have? Less than last week. How many coins do you have? Fewer than yesterday.

But does it matter? I enjoy correcting my friends when they get this 'wrong' (annoying them, actually), but I would be reluctant to correct a child. By the time they grow up fewer will probably be archaic anyway.

It's really odd that in most contexts the opposite to less and the opposite to fewer are the same word: more! So, we would not have a problem with saying 'more traffic' and 'more cars'. So, why do we insist on 'less traffic' and 'fewer cars'? If I can ask for more cheese and more biscuits today, why do I have to ask for less cheese but fewer biscuits tomorrow?

It's really just an accident that we have two words available for making comparisons that focus on the smaller number. Other European languages manage with just the one word. In French, for example, the word for less is moins and the word for fewer is moins.

So, I'm starting a campaign to make less fuss about this – and less complaints.

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