Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dr. T on Grammar: Less or Fewer?


Dr. T offers two prescriptions for acute LESS OR FEWER distress. Take your pick.

There are two viable rules for dealing with this puzzle. You can use either. Just know that each rule runs into exceptions it can't account for.

PERFECTLY GOOD RULE NUMBER ONE: USE "FEWER" FOR THINGS YOU CAN COUNT, AND "LESS" FOR EVERYTHING ELSE. Thus: 
  • I have fewer jars of peanut butter than I had yesterday. (You can count jars of peanut butter.)
  • I have less peanut butter than I had yesterday. (You can't count peanut butter.)
Only trouble here is that a sentence like "I have less than two hundred dollars in the bank" appears to violate the rule. Most of us want to avoid writing "I have fewer than two hundred dollars in the bank."


PERFECTLY GOOD RULE NUMBER TWO: USE "FEWER" FOR THINGS THAT ARE PLURAL, AND "LESS" FOR THINGS THAT ARE SINGULAR. Thus:
  • I have fewer jars of peanut butter than I had yesterday. (Jars of peanut butter are plural.)
  • I have less peanut butter than I had yesterday. (Peanut butter is singular.)
Alas, this rule still flunks the bank account test: "I have less than two hundred dollars in the bank." Two hundred dollars is plural, or at least sounds like it should be plural. (Some people argue that we actually think of it as a singular amount, an implied single pile of money, but I'm not sure I buy that.)

So -- use either rule, but be prepared to make exceptions for things like money. And distance. And time. And weight.

As in so many areas of human endeavor, there's a time for hard-and-fast-rules. And a time to use your God-given common sense.