Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

When Less is Fewer

Posted by Neal on April 5, 2005

The Tensor has noticed something that I’ve wondered about now and then. I’ll have said something like, “That’s one less thing to worry about,” and then spent the next few minutes thinking along these lines: Hey, wait, thing is a count noun, so I should use fewer instead of less. But that can’t be right: one fewer thing to worry about is no good, either. Oh, OK, fewer needs a plural noun, so it’d be one fewer things to worry about. No, that’s still no good. The only thing that sounds right is one less thing to worry about. Weird.

If you’re writing, there are two ways to go at this point. One way is to say, “Well, OK, the rules are the rules. Fewer it is.” You throw out the only phrasing that sounded right, and replace it with something that sounds horribly wrong, but which must be right because the rule says so.

The second way is to weenie out and write something like, “One more thing not to worry about,” or “Fewer things to worry about.”

The third way is–Three ways! There are three ways to go here!–is to go with what sounds right, and conclude that the rule writers just didn’t get around to considering all the complications that might come up. This is what the Tensor has done, and he’s issued a patch for the less/fewer rule. Or more precisely, he’s formulated the rule to accurately reflect the grammar of English as spoken by him, but his judgments are shared by most of his commentators (and by me). As he puts it:

… [F]ewer goes with bare plural count nouns and count nouns with numbers greater than one, and less goes with mass nouns and count nouns with number one. In all cases, though, there is agreement between the number and the plurality of the noun.

That’s a nice description. It ain’t pretty, but it gets the facts right.

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9 Responses to “When Less is Fewer”

  1. But if you’re taking the full-on descriptivist route, you might have to conclude that the whole less/fewer distinction is bunk to begin with. Lots of people seem neither aware of nor bound by it. Exhibit A: I know of only one grocery store (Trader Joe’s) whose express lane has a requirement of X items or *fewer*.

  2. Neal said

    I’d say the rule was bunk if there were no English speakers for whom it was an accurate rule describing how they spoke. I think there are, though, and for them the less/fewer rule is real. But certainly, for speakers who had to learn the less/fewer rule consciously, the rule is not part of their internal grammar. In their grammars, the rule is simple: use ‘less’ for count nouns and mass nouns, and that’s that.

  3. blahedo said

    Heh. As a “fewer”-less dialect speaker, I routinely get stopped and ‘corrected’ by people who have nothing better to do than interrupt the flow of the conversation. Very frustrating. I refuse to bow to the pressure, but now I think I’ll have to pose them this one in return. (I know what the answer will be, of course: “It should be ‘one fewer thing’, because that’s what the rules say. Sigh.)

  4. Ingeborg S. Nordn said

    I ordinarily distinguish between “less” and “fewer”, but the “one” exception occurs in my own dialect too. Still, I can’t help thinking that “One X less” sounds better than either “One X fewer”, “One fewer X”, or “One less X”.

  5. Brett said

    Of course you can have one fewer. Where does it say you can’t? Set X has 4 items and set Y has 3. Set Y has fewer items. How many fewer? One.

    Few simply means a small number. The -er suffix means comparatively.

    However, general use does seem to indicate that ‘fewer’ is, is about an order of magnitude less common than ‘less’, occuring about 30 times per million words, as opposed to 340 times for ‘less’

  6. Hugh said

    Jack has ten apples. The number of apples Jack has is ten.

    Jill has nine apples. The number of apples Jill has is one fewer (than Jack has).

    “Nine” and “one fewer”, in this pair of sentences, refer to exactly the same thing: a quantity, whose value is nine, one fewer than the quantity of apples Jack has. They are are interchangable:

    (Jack has ten apples.) Jill has one fewer apples. The number of apples Jill has is nine.

    The phrase “one fewer” is a direct substitute for the word “nine”.

  7. Peter said

    Let’s try a number other than “one” to see how the pattern works.

    Amy has two fewer apples.
    Bob has one fewer apples.

    “Fewer” points to the following noun, and therefore that noun shouldn’t be held hostage by “one.”

  8. Gabe said

    Actually, your ‘one less’ worry is handled by the ‘rule’ that when the number is ‘one’ (as in, “one less villain in the world!” said Superman — I’m a dork, sorry!), you actually use ‘less’, not ‘fewer’.

    So there’s no need for a ‘patch'; the rule has always been there.

    Well… at least for the last 200 years or so.

  9. J.R. said

    I’d say that less is more appropriate because the ‘one case’ is equivalent to a mass noun in its use of the singular. Peter’s example is faulty because he is using the plural, even though it rarely works. (One fewer villains in the world? Really?) One less pea. Less pease. Fewer peas. In the second case, there are a certain number of fewer peas, but you’re using the singular mass-noun, so less it is.

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