December 15, 2011

Sorting out "less than" and "fewer" isn't difficult

Writers are notoriously bad at math, but that doesn’t explain the prejudice against “less than” in expressions with countable items.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian —
The sticklers are correct when they say “fewer” can be used only with countable items, not masses. If your hen laid six eggs yesterday and only four today, then today she laid fewer eggs. But when you crack eggs into a bowl and whisk them together, they cease to be eggs and become “egg.” So there’s less egg in the bowl today than there was yesterday. But you wouldn’t say there’s fewer egg in the bowl. Even without a grammarian’s advice, you wouldn’t say that, because it feels wrong.

Fewer eggs but less egg. Fine. The problem comes when people assert that since “less” goes with egg, it can only go with egg and may not go with eggs. These are the sort who call the grocery store sign “ten items or less” grammatically incorrect and claim “ten items or fewer” is the only correct form.

Fewer than ten, less than ten, ten or fewer, ten or less — all perfectly valid constructions. If you have nine items in your cart, you have less than the guy with eleven items. Or, as a mathematician might say, 9 < 11.

In the absence of a number, “than” is an important part of the construction. “Today the hen laid fewer (or less) eggs” begs for the completion of the comparison. Fewer (or less) than…what? Yesterday? Six? Her sister?

People don’t get quite as hung up on “greater” and “more than,” but the same principles apply. Except that if your hen laid four eggs yesterday and six today, you wouldn’t say today she laid greater eggs. You’d say she laid a greater number of eggs today than yesterday. Actually, you’d be likely to say she laid more eggs today. And you’d be correct.

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