Tuesday, 22 July 2008

less, fewer

There's been some talk recently over the correctness of less with count nouns. Well, this talk has been going on for about 300 years, but recently some editing blogs are discussing it.

What the AHD calls the "traditional rule" is often stated as: "use fewer with things that can be counted and less with things that cannot be counted." Let's call this Rule A.

Rule A is neither helpful nor traditional. It's not helpful because following it produces things like 10 items or fewer, 25 dollars or fewer, one fewer member, fewer than 15 minutes, which sound downright weird. The rule often has an addendum saying it's ok to use less with time or money, as in less than 15 minutes or less than five dollars, because these are not viewed as countable. For instance, "we say less than six weeks, not fewer than six weeks, because we are not referring to six individual weeks, but to a single period of time lasting six weeks." (Also here.) But this isn't helpful because surely an amount of any kind of thing can be viewed as a single entity. With 10 items or less, can't we say that we're not referring to 10 individual items, but to a single cart of groceries?

Rule A is not traditional either, because it is not as old as Rule B, the rule that English writers have been following for 1000 years: "use fewer with count nouns, and use less with count and noncount nouns, especially, but not only, with nouns of time, money and distance, and in the constructions less than, or less and one less." (Not a perfect rule, but better.)

Here's an early example:

c888 King Ælfred, Boethius de consolatione philosophiæ. xxxv. §5
Forþæm ðu ne ðearft nauht sƿiþe ƿundrigan ðeah ƿe spirian æfter ðam þe ƿe ongunnon. sƿa mid læs ƿorda. sƿa mid ma. sƿæþer ƿe hit gereccan magon.
"Therefore thou needest not greatly wonder, when we are inquiring concerning what we have begun, whether we may prove it with less words or with more."

læs worda is a partitive genitive, literally "less of words". Altho English lost this construction, it retained the use of less with count nouns:

(a1393) John Gower, Confessio Amantis 7.3666: If it so is That I thin help schal undertake, Thou schalt yit lasse poeple take.

It turns in less than two nights? - Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Act III, scene i

...Goldsmith took less pains than Pope... to create images of luxury in the reader's mind - John Butt, English Literature in the Mid-Eighteenth Century, 1979

(More examples can be found in the MWDEU entry)

Rule A was first expressed by Baker in 1770 as his personal preference - "No Fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but strictly proper" - but with the passage of time has been turned into a rule. But in fact it seems that English writers follow and have always followed Rule B (see some data here).

The notion that less with count nouns is becoming more common might be the Recency Illusion: if you've noticed something only recently, you believe that it in fact originated recently. less with count nouns is certainly not a recent usage.

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