Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, useless chatter about whether to use “less”…
Q: Hi there. I was at the supermarket last week buying candy to put at my front door for trick-or-treaters. While I was lining up at the “8 items or less” aisle, I heard the person behind me making an odd “tsk tsk” sound and pointing to the sign.
A: Please, go on.
Q: Well, at first I thought it was because I actually had nine bags of Freddos. But then I remembered there is some rule about “less” and “fewer” and thought it must be that. So, what IS the rule?
A: First, how many of those bags of Freddos actually made it to the front door, and how many did you end up eating yourself?
Q: I would like to move on please.
A: Haha, sure. Okay, less versus fewer. It’s more than likely your neighbour in the queue was referring to the sign and not your rogue extra item. (Besides, it’s only when people take their trolleys through that the “tsking” really gets loud.) But yes, short answer – it should indeed read “8 items or fewer” and not “less”.
Q: Wow, it’s been a while since you were that sure about a rule. We usually ramble on for another few Qs and As before I get an answer out of you. So, no ambiguous half-rule with a double shot of US variation?
A: Not really – you’ve hit the jackpot this week. The rule is that you should use “fewer” when the items you’re referring to can be counted – these are called “count nouns”.
Q: Count noun huh? Any relation to Count Dracula?
A: Not even distant cousins. Anyway, count nouns use “fewer” while “mass nouns” use “less” to describe them. A mass noun is a word that can’t be (or isn’t typically) counted, such as water, sand – even furniture.
Q: Furniture? I can count that.
A: Yes, but the word itself refers to a group of items of any number. It’s the word we’re looking at, not a particular context.
A: Okay, try this. These are all “mass” concepts but notice in brackets that they can become countable in different contexts. There is less water in the lake (but you can say “fewer waters on the table”), less sand on the beach (but “fewer grains of sand in my hand”) and less furniture in the living room (but “fewer pieces of furniture”).
Q: What about chocolate? “I ate less chocolate on Halloween this year and fewer Freddos.” Yes?
A: Yes, that works. (But we still don’t believe you about the Freddos.) So as you can see, often the same word can be treated as a count or a mass noun – but it’s usually very clear which belongs to which form.
Q: Are there any other exceptions?
A: On occasion we do lump things like money, time or distance into the “mass noun” category, despite the fact that these things can be counted. So we might say “those Freddos should cost twenty dollars or less” or “the course goes for less than two hours” or “the trick-or-treaters were less than 50 metres from our house”.
Q: So how does it work with “the least” and “the fewest”?
A: “The least” does bunch of jobs, the main one being as the superlative of “little”. Meanwhile, “the fewest” is solely the superlative of “few” – for example, “my bag has the fewest Freddos in it”. Yet it is also acceptable to use “the least” as the opposite of “most” before adjectives. So we might say, “you are wearing the least impressive costume in the street”.
Q: Gee, thanks for the compliment.
A: It’s the least we could do. (And yes, that’s another use of “the least”.)
Q: Well at least “less” and “fewer” were more clear cut. Fewer = things you can count individually; less = more abstract ‘mass’ amounts.
A: That’s the trick. Grammar is such a treat!
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