Monday, July 23, 2007

15. The Fewer-Less Mess

Hey, Grammar Bloggers! How are you all doing in this sizzling heat? What we need around here in Columbus County right now is a real frog strangler, but, so far, no luck.

Okay, to help pass the time today we'll take a look at a grammar problem suggested by one of my former English students (and a very good one at that!) who is also an English major. One of his pet peeves is the misuse of FEWER and LESS, especially seen in grocery store signs advertising items for sale, but most certainly not exclusively there.

So what is the problem with these two adjectives? It seems that FEWER and LESS are often used interchangeably when they should not be. Here's a very simple way to get this straight once and for all:

Simply put, FEWER should be used when you are referring to nouns that can be counted or that name a number of SEPARATE objects and are PLURAL. An example is shown here:

Buy FEWER apples than you did last week. (It would be easy to count the apples--whether there are two or twenty, so FEWER is correct. Also notice that apples are separate objects and they are referred to in the PLURAL form.)

LESS should be used when you are referring to nouns that cannot be counted easily or that name a WHOLE collection, quantity, or group and are referred to in the SINGULAR form. An example of this use is shown here:

We cooked LESS rice last night than we did the night before. (Here, counting the rice would be pretty hard to do. We are referring to a WHOLE "quantity" of rice and notice that the word RICE is SINGULAR.)

Pretty easy, huh? Let's see how well you do with the following sentences:

(1) The rent was (fewer, less) than $400.

(2) Grandpa tells (fewer, less) funny stories than Grandma.

(3) Our new neighborhood has (fewer, less) children than our old one had.

(4) My lawn has (fewer, less) weeds now than it had last summer.

(5) My new car cost me (fewer, less) money than my neighbor's car cost him.

The correct answers are

(1) less
(2) fewer
(3) fewer
(4) fewer
(5) less

In sentences 1 and 5, LESS is correct because the rent and money are being referred to as a group or quantity, and both nouns are SINGULAR.

In sentences 2,3, and 4 the opposite is happening. The stories, children, and weeds can be counted, (although it's true that it might be a little difficult to count the weeds--especially in my yard). Notice, though, that all three nouns are plural. Therefore, the correct answer is FEWER. This is a great way to double check the use if you have any questions.

Okay, I'm signing off for today. Enjoy your week and thanks a bunch for visiting. GG

1 comment:

Jake said...

I've always remembered the distinction using the concept of measurement and counting. Countable items use "fewer" whereas measurable items use "less". So, when I need to decide which to use, do I measure apples or count apples? Do I measure children or count children? For more abstract cases though, it can be tough. For example, one can count money, but typically, one is actually measuring the amount of money.