Wednesday 21 July 2010

We Few, We Lesser Few

Just in case you didn't know (and I'm sure you did) if you have fewer pints you have less beer. You cannot have fewer beer and you cannot drink less pints.

If you are talking about items that you can count - one, two, three, four - you use fewer (in mathematics this is called a discrete variable). If you are talking about an amount you use less. With that in mind, from the sullen quagmire of the Dear Dogberry page comes this query from Eleus:

The other day I wrote a comparison of Mozart and Schumann (not just for fun). The whole essay was coming together really well, except for one sentence that I just couldn't resolve.

I wanted to say something along these lines: "Schumann was born less than 20 years after the death of Mozart". But I had a sneaking suspicion that it should have been "fewer than 20 years", and it niggled at me for hours until I went back and re-wrote the paragraph so I didn't have to say it that way at all.

Still, I'm a bit befuddled.

I know that we say there is "less time" - but years are finite, aren't they, so surely it's "fewer years". What happens then if the years aren't whole years? For instance what if he was born 19 and a half years after Mozart - is that really "fewer"? - because it seems more of a continuum to me.

Or what if one person has 3 litres of water and someone else has only 2.9 litres of water. I know the second person has less liquid but do they really have fewer litres?

I've been thinking the issue over so much it's become obnubilated and I just can't straighten it out.

Am I making a simple thing complicated?

Well, Eleus, I think that in your wisdom you have pretty much answered your own question. It would be "less than a year" because, though a year is a discrete variable, the time that you are now subtracting from it is not, it is an amorphous amount. The same, I think, applies to twenty years.
This could not be said of "less than twenty people", which would be wrong because you could only subtract one person at a time from the crowd.
Just to be complicated. If, rather than using years, you were using markers of a year's passing (like winters) you would need to use to fewer. Schumann was born fewer than twenty winters after Mozart's death, but less than twenty years.

There's a Cowboy Junkies song about a long marriage that goes "It's been thirty summers that I've spent with him", meaning not that they spend winters apart, but that they've been married thirty years. Had their marriage been shorter, they would have spent fewer summers together. As Wordsworth put it:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters!

I hope that clears it up.

Incidentally, I love obnubilated, which, dear reader, means beclouded.


P.S. I'm sorry that this reply has taken so long, I am now back in England and clearing the backtwig (which is like a backlog, but smaller).


  1. "If you are talking about items that you can count - one, two, three, four - you use less... If you are talking about an amount you use fewer."

    I enjoy how the transposition here has left the first sentence accurate (for many readers, including me) but not the second.

  2. To be honest, I really couldn't care fewer.

  3. Does anyone make this distinction any more, apart from a few pedants who vandalise supermarket checkout signs asking for "Five items or less" (or is it the other way round)? Who cares, anyway?

  4. With lots of rules, I think there must be process by which words or usages which were once incorrect become acceptable, even standard.

    I think the less/fewer distinction is going in that direction but is not quite there yet - "less pints" still sounds odd to me, although I would probably say "not as many pints", since "fewer" sounds stuffy, if correct.

    I was thinking about split infinitives the other day. Some of my older colleagues get very upset by split infinitives, and can spend hours arguing about them. I don't really think there is anything wrong with split infinitives (wasn't the rule against them one of those strange inventions by classically influenced grammarians?); still, I try to avoid them at work, so as not to upset my seniors.

  5. a process, I mean.

  6. Split infinitives (as a problem) were invented in America in 1834 (I think). They are often unfairly blamed on Robert Lowth: see this post here.

  7. I love your work Mr Dogberry, but I disagree & I also must (respectfully) disagree with Anon (the First) who feels that 'less items' was once incorrect, but is becoming standard. It never was incorrect! Alfred the Great refers to 'less words' and nobody told him he was wrong. (Therefore he was right - QED)

    The argument for the wrongitude of 'less items' goes like this: we don’t use fewer with mass nouns, e.g. 'stuff'; therefore we’re not allowed to use less with countable nouns, e.g. 'items'.

    This argument is fine all the way up to the therefore bit, but then it goes a bit haywire. Lots of very good writers use & approve '50 words or less', 'less people/votes/resources', etc.

  8. Wow thanks Dogberry, great answer! But we seem to have stirred up a bit of an argle-bargle here! Good luck :-)

  9. Mr Campbell,
    I agree up to a point. I would happily use less for anything I wasn't thinking of putting a precise figure on: e.g. "Less than a million people", but "fewer than five people". It's the same principle as this old post about plurals.

    "I drank less pints than him last night" just doesn't sound right to my English ear, unless you were up to a million...

    In fact, I would say that "less" always sounds wrong if it immediately precedes a plural noun, but doesn't if it comes later (as in "6 items or less").

    Arguing from history is unnecessary if you trust your ear. If it makes a native speaker twitch, then there's something wrong there.

  10. I shall do my best to explain this, in simpler terms, to my francophone sleeping partner, with the risk that the fewer words I speak, the less he will understand.

  11. Antipodean The First, who needs to be more humble about sport, apparently, because every time she gets vaguely hopeful the gods punish her team, and who doesn't have time for any of this and should be asleep by now anyway,22 July 2010 at 16:55

    @Arnie, google cares. If you click 'More' on their handy little list, the option to compress it all again says 'Fewer.' Also Ikea, who have '8 items or fewer' lanes.

    @Mark, that comment really confused me and I had to go and read Dogberry's post just to make sure I really had a point. Which proves your point, and part of Mr Campbell's, I think.

    For what it's worth, these important topics even get debated during cricket commentary: the clever and slightly crass chaps over at Test Match Sofa were debating whether Pakistan, who had apparently bowled with lots of brains (hmph), had then batted with much less brains or much fewer brains. The concensus was that it was less brains, since if they had fewer brains they would have none at all, or, alternatively, they started with two in the first place.

  12. Test Match Sofa? Aha! You are a composite being composed of Mrs M and Bonvicino, who was telling me about TMSofa yesterday (along with confessing a commendably ecological recycling of witticisms).

  13. The Antipodean, The First, well, to the first call herself that on this blog anyway, and still a little, ok, somewhat, *fine*, rather insecure with regards to her identity,23 July 2010 at 19:26

    'Composite' and 'composed of' in the same sentence? Disappointing, young man. (You haven't discussed generational voice yet, by the way.) Concomitant would've been appropriate, methinks.

    I think your comment may be missing a semi-colon after 'confessing': either that or Bonvicino's conversation was to do with some admission of plagiarism and the italics are emphasis of an in-joke.

    TMSofa are a ridiculously articulate and amusing lot, particularly as they do it live. Also they understand cricket and are quite happy to declare that someone is doing badly, a rare trait in cricket commentary. Well, kinda. They have picked on me somewhat, due to my strange insistence on liking Watson.

    Anyway, I have neglected to declare my affection for obnubilated, and the painting above. A Turner, yes? Mind you, a rather attractive picture of pints in the afternoon sun also.