Less or Fewer?
When it comes to grammar rules I rarely take anyone’s word for it these days. I’m skeptical about any authoritative utterance on how I am supposed to speak and write, especially when the rule seems to contradict ordinary usage. But I wasn’t always that way. Like most young people, I once accepted without question the rules insisted upon by teachers and other respected adults. Rules like this:
- Use “less” with non-count nouns: less pollution, less happiness, less creativity, less money
- Use “fewer” with count nouns: fewer automobiles, fewer smiles, fewer artists, fewer dollars
I started thinking about this recently while listening to the current hit song by Ariana Grande, “Problem.” (I have teenage daughters — don’t judge). The chorus of the song is “I’ve got one less problem without you¹.” According to the grammar police, that’s wrong. But is it?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “less” has been used with countable nouns in print as far back as 888 in a work by King Alfred himself. And certainly it’s not uncommon to hear people use “less” this way today. People say “less guns,” “less people,” and “less visits.” A Google search bears this out: “less guns” (79,800) produces slightly more hits than “fewer guns” (73,000). On the other hand, books published in 2007 use “fewer guns” about 6.5 times as often as “less guns,” even though examples of both are not uncommon. This seems to indicate that popular usage is more accepting of “less” with count nouns than formal publications.
The reverse is rarely true. Almost nobody uses “fewer” with non-count nouns. “Fewer money,” “fewer water,” and “fewer hatred” are completely non-idiomatic. This is important. Not even strict descriptivists think the two words are interchangeable. Everyone agrees that “fewer” only works with count nouns. The question is, why can’t “less” work in either case if it’s common both today and historically?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage makes the case that the rule restricting “less” to non-count nouns started with the published opinion of writer Robert Baker in 1770 who suggested rather humbly that no fewer than a hundred was “more elegant” and “more strictly proper” than no less than a hundred. Somehow that modest point of view became over time an inviolable law of English.
So What’s Right?
As always happens in these situations, it is impossible to say with confidence what is the correct usage of “less.” It irks me that one man’s idea of linguistic elegance a quarter of a millennium ago has become binding law on me today. Ten items or less seems clear and unoffensive to me, as does one less problem without you.
But the rule is deeply ingrained despite my opinion. Every dictionary and style guide I’ve consulted, and most online grammar bloggers stand by the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” I therefore bow to the collective voice of experts on the matter and suggest that you stick to “fewer” with stuff you can count.
But there are some exceptions to the rule, of course. When talking about distance and time and other measurements, we are usually not talking about a particular number of miles or hours so much as a distance or period of time. For that reason we typically use “less” and not “fewer”:
- I will be there in less than two days.
- He outweighs me by less than six pounds.
- We have less than 100 miles to go before we arrive.
I have heard this exception used to justify the “ten items or less” usage on checkout aisles. The idea is that “ten items” is being used as a collective whole, akin to the non-count word “groceries”; therefore, “less” is okay. I can’t say I find this reasoning convincing. If we are supposed to use “fewer” with count nouns, that seem like the better option here. Maybe an even better idea is to follow the lead of British grocery chains who have begun changing their signs to “No more than ten items.”
There is a second exception. That’s the case of “one less” versus “one fewer.” According to the count/non-count rule, we should always say, “one fewer” rather than “one less,” since only countable things can be modified with the word “one.” You can’t, for example, say one less water, one less creativity, etc. So, it seems like the line from the song referenced above should be “I’ve got one fewer problem without you.” But that really throws off the dance beat!
And nobody says it that way.
I Googled “one less” and got 3.5 million results. “One fewer” got just over 600 thousand (more than I expected, actually).
Here’s the comparison of “one less” to “one fewer” in print publications since the start of the 20th century:
I even found another blogger who did a comparison across various respected news publications:
Clearly, when preceded by the word “one,” “less” is preferable to “fewer.” One respected grammar discussion board suggests that this is because a single item isn’t countable. I’m not sure this makes sense to me, but it doesn’t matter why; the reality is that “one less problem” is perfectly acceptable grammatically.
I can accept the historically sketchy and rationally tenuous idea that “fewer” should modify count nouns and “less” should be reserved for uncountable nouns because the experts have nearly unanimously agreed that it should be so. Let’s just keep in mind that there are exceptions to the rule. And can we also agree that since the rule stands on pretty shaky ground, we should avoid being dogmatic and obnoxious about it?
I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below.
¹Technically, the lyric appears to be “I got one less problem without ya,” but I thought I’d tidy it up a bit to reduce the number of potential problems.