Monday 3 February 2014

Less Fewers

I have been asked to pronounce on the explosive question of 10 Items or Less vs 10 Items or Fewer.

Just in case anyone is unaware of this Great Issue of the Day, there is a rule that appears in every English style guide: less amount and fewer numbers. So if I drink fewer pints, I have drunk less beer. That's because pints are something you can count, whereas beer is just frothy liquid.

Fewer children are less trouble.

I have less hair, because I have fewer hairs.

I have less shopping because I bought fewer items; fewer, in fact, than ten.

That's the rule. But, as with most rules, it's worth checking whether it's correct. After all, all that you need to get a book out on the English language is a willing publisher and a high opinion of yourself. I am living proof.

So, first let's check if you can use fewer for amount.

I like him fewer.

I am fewer happy today than yesterday.

I am fewer tall than you.

These are just plain wrong. And importantly they're not wrong because a style guide says so. They just Sound Wrong to A Native Speaker (SWANS). If a foreign friend were to talk like that you would giggle or gently correct them. This is not some rule known only to an elite few. It's SWANS, and SWANS is the most important rule of all.

So, what happens if you use less for numbers? Can you get the same effect?

I've drunk less pints than you.

There are less than five children here.

The answer must be less than five.

10 items or less.

Now, the thing about these is that though I know that the style guide tells me they're wrong, they aren't wrong in a SWANS way. They don't make you jump out of your skin. You would never be so rude as to correct a foreigner on this. The style guide says it's wrong, but it doesn't feel wrong.

I spent an awful lot of time trying to think of an example that sounded Properly Wrong, and I couldn't. I retreated into the desert and meditated on the subject* and I just couldn't think of anything that really sounded bad.

And then something really strange happened.

That's one fewer mouth to feed.

Sounds wrong. Properly SWANS wrong.

If we go this route, the journey will be twenty minutes fewer.

That's SWANS.

I have a hundred pounds. He has fewer.

That grates.

I started to find loads of examples where fewer sounded wrong when applied to a number, and less sounded right. I became confused and frightened and decided to try a different tack.

After style guides and SWANS, you can use God And Shakespeare (GAS) to decide what's correct. So I looked up fewer in the Shakespeare concordance.

He used the word 3 times. 3 times in 39 plays. That's really odd. That's less than he used also. The word only appears in Henry IV 2 once and Henry V twice. That's it. However, it is always applied to number.

Less, on the other hand, appears 225 times. And... and... I barely know how to tell you this:

Thou, why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou.

Shakespeare happily applies less to number as well as amount. Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

So after a strong drink and a lie-down, I decided to proceed to the King James Bible. There, at least, I would find the eternal certainties on which I need to rely.

The KJV uses less 30 times. And it uses fewer once. Here's the line:

And ye shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance among your families: and to the more ye shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer ye shall give the less inheritance: every man's inheritance shall be in the place where his lot falleth; according to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit. Numbers 33v54

That's it. God uses fewer even fewer times than Shakespeare.

So, where are we? Common usage, Shakespeare and God all seem to work the same way and have the same rule hanging around in the background. You can't use fewer for amount. But you can use less for number if you feel like it. And you can get away with not using fewer at all.

I realise that this is a surprising conclusion and that governments may fall, riots break out in the deserts and the earth fall from its orbit into the sun. But I couldn't care fewer. I hereby pronounce ex cathedra linguae anglorum that "10 Items or Less" is Absolutely Fine.

And for those of you interested either in the philosophy of mathematics or the works of Brett Easton Ellis, consider this: Fewer than Zero.

*Seriously. I was in a car that broke down somewhere near Abu Dhabi, and there wasn't much else to do.


  1. Still feels wrong to me . . . .

  2. "10 items *of* less is absolutely fine"?

    That aside, I think part of the problem you address is in quantities/numbers that subdivide. E.g., if you walk fewer than four miles, you have walked exactly one, two or three miles. If less than four miles, you are looking at the distance as one whole and any fraction under that is less than it. Which in turn reminds me of a phrase I read in Alan Bennett's diaries: "There were six inches of water in the bath." I would have said "there was..." as I'd regard it as one measurement rather than something that was added in units of an inch at a time. But I suppose that's a-whole-nother ball game.

    1. The "mouths to feed" example would seem to override that.

    2. You don't get half a mouth.

  3. Personally, I see nothing wrong with your first supposed SWANS example. That might simply be a matter of familiarity and stylistic preference.

    Your two subsequent SWANS examples, however, are indeed horrible--but they are generally accepted as wrong. The rule that you cite has an exception,* which can be paraphrased along these lines: 'If the units [minutes, pounds] that you can count individually are measurements of an homogeneous mass [time, money], then use less rather than fewer.'

    * Perhaps it's not so much an exception as a clarification? The sentence is mixing what your rule refers to as numbers and amounts, and so the decision is based on the larger whole (amount) overriding the smaller units (numbers).

    In essence, then: awfully sorry, old chap, but you're not inciting revolution after all...

  4. I think the problem is the definition too - it's not an amount that requires 'fewer', it's plurals. Less than five is less than a number - fine. 'Less than five metres' is a lesser distance - also fine. But 'there are less molecules than atoms' is a disaster. Because plurals and fewer don't match.

  5. Noooo! I get SWAN pings on all of them!

  6. My native-speaking-ear concurs with the Fool. One argument I have heard against less + count is that because we don’t say ‘fewer stuff’ we therefore shouldn’t say ‘less items’. It seems a fair division of work: fewer won’t do the job for the non-count things so why the heck should less do the job for the count ones? And it has a neat symmetry. (Similar arguments are used to say we must use ‘that’ not ‘which’ in e.g. ‘a date which will live in infamy’.) But it’s not true – it’s not an accurate description of how people have ever used English. There is a neat symmetry involving ‘less’, but it’s between ‘less’ and ‘more’– both of them used for count and non-count.

    1. The rule concerning when to use 'that' and when to use 'which' seems to be that the former is to be used in a defining clause, but the latter is used in a non-defining clause. e.g. "the beer that was German was the strongest" (the beer needs to be German to convey the meaning intended) and "the beer, which was German, was the strongest" (the nationality of the beer was incidental to the meaning intended). The commas assist the distinction in usage.

  7. I find the incorrect use of lesser/fewer grates on my ear while listening to Radio 4 with increasing frequency. "The party has less members today than a year ago" and suchlike is increasingly common usage. It's on a par with "bored of" which is one of the worst usages - even Volvo used it in a recent advert - "bored of German techno?". Drive me mad, but then that's why I read books like yours!

  8. I may have missed something here but I thought the rule was one less, two or more fewer. And expressions of quantity demand less. Great to see you back.

  9. Speaking of mathematics. ">" and "<", are always greater than and less than. Even when you are explicitly working with integers. If you want a swan ping try saying "x ≤ 5," is "x is fewer than or equal to 5."

  10. To expand on my last comment. Less is paired with more, and with greater. More is paired with both less and fewer, less being uncountable and fewer being countable. However, fewer is not paired with greater. This frees up less to refer to both countable and uncountable nouns, when paired with greater. Imagine there was an adjacent lane requiring a larger number of items than 10. A "10 items or greater lane," being located next to the "10 items or less lane" and all will be right in your ears.

  11. Greater is paired with lesser not less. Greater than is paired with less than.

  12. Lesser? Fewer? I go with SWANS.
    What really grates, is when an interview starts 'How upset/frightened/annoyed were you?'

  13. You hit exactly upon my theme this week: people who can explain grammar so much better than I can, with a side-trip into zombie rules. Adding your link to my show notes right now. So glad I found you.

  14. Talking of English usage that grates, I noticed that Google quoted a passage on its homepage yesterday to support its recognition of the tolerant Olympic spirit. The passage was the fourth Fundamental Principle of Olympism but contained the present participle "practicing" instead of "practising", which is the correct spelling and which the source document, the Olympic Charter, employs. Presumably Google had consulted an alternative Charter containing the Fundmental Principals of Olympism to mine their spelling of the word.

    1. I'm afraid the explanation for Google's use of "practicing" with a "c" is much simpler. That is the way Americans always spell it.

    2. Anonymous, thank you for the explanation. However, Google specifically quoted the Olympic Charter which contains the non-American English way of spelling "practising".

  15. Re: your less/fewer piece. Agree 99%. You say: " can get away with not using fewer at all.” And you say: "God uses fewer even fewer times than Shakespeare.” Ergo, you can say: "God uses fewer even LESS times than Shakespeare.” Less Times? To my SWANS ear that don’t too pretty good.

  16. Indeed; if you were eschewing fewer, you'd probably just say 'God uses fewer even less than Shakespeare'.


  18. Brilliant, funny, and thought provoking. Personally, I have fewer respect for the Grammar Police with each passing day. One nit pick for you though. Mr. Ellis (Easton Ellis?) took his title from Elvis Costello (Everything is less than zero). In fact, he assigned two of his book titles from Mr. Costello (Mr. McManus?), this one and "Imperial Bedrooms." The Attractions ("Rules of Attraction") was/is Elvis' band. Hmmm. An obsession with Elvis detected. Or at the very least, a tip of the chapeau from the author.