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Less versus fewer

How do you know when to use "less" and "fewer" when describing things?

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Video transcript

- [Man] Hello Grammarians. Hello Rosie. - [Rosie] Hi David. - [David] So you've called me into the recording booth today. - [Rosie] Yes. - [David] Because you have a bone to pick with me. - [Rosie] Just a little bit, yeah. - [David] So I have always in my usage, I've always drawn a distinction between 'less' and 'fewer'. I wouldn't say I'm one of those sticklers that goes around correcting signs at the grocery store checkout. You know if it says like 15 items or Less. I'm not gonna take out a black Sharpie and say,"No, fewer." But I do think that there is a distinction in usage between the two. But you told me that there is not as much as I would like to believe. Look, like I'm the last person that wants to needlessly subscribe to grammar superstitions, right? - [Rosie] Right. - [David] Our job is to go around with our little needle of truth and pop 'em. - [Rosie] Yes. That's what I'm gonna try to do or I'm gonna try to argue this. - [David] Okay. Dislodge me from my perch. - [Rosie] Alright. I'm gonna make a broad statement to start with and we can kinda dig into it but my argument is that you can use 'less' to mean or to refer to both countable items, count nouns and to larger mass nouns but you can only use 'fewer' to refer to count nouns like, 'five items or fewer' but you couldn't say 'fewer water'. - [David] So you are acknowledging that there is a difference. - [Rosie] Oh definitely! - [David] So okay, so Rosie what are count nouns and mass nouns? - [Rosie] Good question. So, count nouns are essentially nouns that you can count individually as in individual entity. So an example between these two count noun would be 'grains of sand' - [David] Okay. So I can count, not that I'd want to grains of sand individually but I guess what you're saying is I couldn't count - [Rosie] Sand. - [David] Sand. Like, let's say for some reason you and I were having a sand counting contest. Plucking individual grains of sand from the beach with tweezers putting them in a bucket. I could say, "I have fewer grains of sand than you do." - [Rosie] Right. - But I couldn't say, "I have fewer sand." Is that what you're saying? - [Rosie] That is what I'm saying. Fewer just, it just doesn't in Standard English it just doesn't go with these mass nouns. You know, fewer sand. I'm getting fewer sun than I used to. You would say, "I'm getting less sun than I used to" for example if you're talking about being out in the sun. - [David] Sure. Versus hours of sun exposure. - [Rosie] Right. You could get fewer hours of sun exposure but my argument and this is where I think you and I differ is that I believe you could also say "I'm getting less hours of sun exposure." - [David] Hmm! - [Rosie] And the reason that I feel this way - [David] Okay - [Rosie] Is that this trend or this idea that fewer always has to go with the count noun is really just as far as I can figure just a thing that some guy named Robert Baker wrote in this book. - [David] What do you mean "some guy"? - [Rosie] He was, well okay - [David] Just like some dude invented it? - [Rosie] He wasn't some guy, I guess he was at the time he was sort of a front-runner in terms of talking about language and he wrote this book that was called "Reflections on the English Language" in 1770. And what Robert Baker said in the book and this is, I mean, people have looked at this and tried to trace the origins of this 'fewer/less' issue with count nouns and Robert Baker said "This word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number "where I should think 'fewer' would do better. "No fewer than a hundred appears to me not only more elegant "than no less than a hundred, but strictly proper." - [David] He did just kind of decide arbitrarily. - [Rosie] He did. I mean he's really stating his opinion here. He says, "Appears to me not only more elegant "than less than a hundred but strictly proper." Okay so maybe this strictly proper sounds a little intimidating but he's stating an opinion here. - [David] So he's talking about the word 'less'. - [Rosie] He's talking about the word 'less'. - [David] The word 'less' is most commonly used in speaking of a number. And he just thinks, "Ah, I feel like fewer would do better" so he's going on this gut impulse. Which is for the record, fine. - [Rosie] It is fine. - [David] Right? Like there's nothing would you think there's anything ungrammatical about saying, "There is fewer, I get fewer sun." - [Rosie] I guess not. It's just not the way that we speak in Standard English. - [David] It's just style and culture right? - [Rosie] Right. - [David] That dictates the way that we feel about words. - [Rosie] Right. And so I guess that's what I'm getting at is in Standard English these days we see 'less' being used when referring to both count nouns and mass nouns and I think that's fine. - [David] Alright. - [Rosie] Yeah. I don't see any problem with that especially since the only real reasoning that anybody can find to go on is this one persons opinion from 1770. So I think we can say 'less' to refer to countable items - [David] And lest you think that we're replacing one dudes opinion from 1770 with two peoples opinion from the present like I get that that's a legitimate criticism that you can make but what we're trying to say is that this reflects the way that language is commonly used and understood now. - [Rosie] Right. - [David] This isn't just the two of us making an arbitrary rule. Which, by the way Rosie I'm now on your side. I buy into this. You can use 'less' to refer to count nouns and mass nouns but 'fewer' only in refer to count nouns. I get that. Because this actually reflects the way that these words are used in what is called 'The corpus of English' like the body of language that bounces around everyday. - [Rosie] Exactly. And the one exception that I would say comes back to this question of context and style that David and I have been talking about. If you're writing a formal paper you probably wanna use 'fewer' to refer to count nouns because in that context I mean that's still kinda what's on the books as the "right way". - [David] Okay, so this is the more formal option. They're both correct but this is more formal? - [Rosie] Right. I would say so. - [David] Okay. Well cool. Thank you Rosie. - [Rosie] Oh, you're welcome. - [David] I feel like I learned something today. Thank you for disabusing me of this superstition. - [Rosie] Of course. - [David] And thank you Grammarians, you can learn anything. David out. - [Rosie] Rosie out.