Less vs Fewer – gets me every time

“Less loop trains” isn’t true in peak. 7:01-9am Richmond to Parliament: was 73, now 77, because more trains on most lines #MetroTrains


Sorry, but Less vs Fewer gets me every time.

I know the rule (“fewer” should be used when what you’re talking about can be counted)… I just never remember to invoke it.

Maybe I was away the day that was taught in English.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

19 replies on “Less vs Fewer – gets me every time”

It probably wasn’t taught in English. I know it only because my mother taught it to me. Few teachers of mine would have known it themselves. One certainly would have, but I had learned it before I encountered her.

i am learning this in my editing course. grammar rules are one thing, but use has evolved. it’s more common to say ‘less’ now, even in countable situations. fewer tends to sound a bit formal these days. it’s also quite conceptual – for example, ‘less students’ could work, notionally, if you envisaged the students as a mass rather than a number. anyway, bring on the nerdy grammar debates i say.

Just because it’s more common doesn’t make it right… look at train cancellations, they’re common…. but we’d like to see fewer ; )

Incorrect use is still incorrect, regardless of how common it is. If a grammar couse is teaching common use as correct then it’s not a grammar course, it’s a common usage course.

Most people write ‘definately’, so that’s certainly in common usage. Bowing to common misuse of spelling and grammar won’t improve knowledge of the language but instead will reduce its power and versatility so that it caters to the lowest common denominator.

I get annoyed at the off/from issue – ‘Can I get [item] off you at some point’ vs ‘Can I get [item] from you at some point’ … grrr

@Philip: Remember that speakers determine how a language works, not linguists or grammarians. Indeed, many of the ‘rules’ prescriptivists subscribe to were invented by random people who were trying to ‘improve’ the language according to their own tastes, artificially imposing usage patterns from another language, or, just as often, applying some misunderstanding they developed independently.

Less vs. fewer is a good example of this. See Merriam-Webster’s entry ( where it appears that this ‘rule’ developed out of the writing of one man in 1770 who merely expressed a personal preference for the use of the word ‘fewer’ in certain circumstances.

Language change is inevitable. Without it, we would certainly not be speaking English (the result of over a thousand years of changes to Germanic and Romance languages, themselves similarly the result of changes to their predecessors). If such change reduces the versatility of a language, it’s likely because that versatility was overcomplicated and made it difficult to communicate.

The purpose of language is to communicate, and how that communication is achieved is a matter of context. If I’m just chatting with a friend, ‘proper’ usage is not necessary so long as my meaning is transferred. In other contexts, however, there are accepted styles, deviation from which may be inappropriate (e.g. using ‘WTFOMGLOL!’ in a scientific paper). I’d argue that Twitter by its nature is a conversational medium, and is used as such, so any construction that successfully conveys a message is perfectly valid.

Anyway, it seems grammar is my grammar peeve. :)

Once your brain clicks over though, you will be amazed how grating it is to hear it used incorrectly. It’s like hearing someone say “I have greater spare time than I had last year” instead of “I have more spare time than I had last year”.

And you’ll never look at a “10 items or less” sign again without making the grrr sound…

On a related note, “number” and “amount” are also often confused. You often hear people say ” A large amount of people” rather than a “A large number of people”. Again it’s to do with countability.

I find misuse of “less vs fewer” only moderately grating these days, probably because the ubiquitous “8 items or less” has long since hammered my brain into submission. There are other incorrect usages which bother me far more.

The one that grates most is “imply vs infer”. I find it truly astonishing that so many people don’t know the difference, and blithely toss around “infer” when they mean “imply”. This includes some people in the public eye (media, politics, etc) who should know better. The two words are not synonyms; inference is in fact the opposite of implicature. It’s particularly astonishing when this error is found in something which was always intended for a printed medium. Anyone can stumble over a word when they’re speaking, especially in a highly pressured situation such as a live-to-air interview. However, if you’re taking the time to craft a letter to the editor of a newspaper, one would think you’d be careful to check and double-check what you write, using a dictionary if necessary. Judging from the many letter writers who wrongly use “infer” instead of “imply”, it seems many people just don’t bother to check. Some readers would say “who cares?”, but for me, the effect is like fingernails on a blackboard, and even though I know it’s unfair, I have trouble taking the rest of their argument seriously.

Speaking of effect, “effect vs affect” is another one that annoys me. And “criteria” used as a singular noun. And mispronunciation of common words. I can sometimes be found hollering “it’s prest-I-gious, you moron!” at TV presenters who announce that so-and-so has won a very prest-EE-gious award. (The middle syllable rhymes with “fridge”, not “siege”.) “Mischievous” gets me going too. It has three syllables, not four, and the accent is on the first syllable. MIS-che-vus. Not mis-CHEE-vee-us.

And don’t even get me started on errant apostrophes.

Bonnie, I get effect and affect wrong all the time!
I also say “virgin” when I mean “version” which raises eyebrows.
Daniel, don’t feel so bad, your blogs are pretty accurate.

The one that bugs me at present is the new word “verse” as in “The Cats are playing Verse the Dogs this weekend in the Footie.”
This was heard from my almost 16 year old and younger cousins.

And “amateur” pronounced as “a-ma-cha”. It’s “a-ma-ter”. As in saboteur and restaurateur.

And “regime vs. regimen”. If, perchance, you have a fascist dictator and his armed forces standing over you, insisting that you put the chocolate ice cream back in the freezer at once and go for a 10km run or you will be summarily executed, then you may call it a diet and exercise regime. Otherwise, it’s a regimen.

@roger, try constructing and memorising a paragraph such as this:

“Roger thought his 3am drum-playing wouldn’t AFFECT[1] anyone else, but it had a profound EFFECT[2] on his housemates. The EFFECT[3] of several nights of sleeplessness was that they banded together to EFFECT[4] Roger’s eviction from the house, to take EFFECT[5] immediately. Roger was strangely unmoved by the sight of his personal EFFECTS[6] dumped on the front lawn, but then again, as his psychology student housemate commented later, Roger always did seem to have a blunted AFFECT[7].”

1. AFFECT [verb]: to influence, to intrude upon, to make a difference in.
2. EFFECT [noun]: an influence, an impact, an impression.
3. EFFECT [noun]: an outcome, a result.
4. EFFECT [verb]: to bring about, to make happen.
5. EFFECT [noun]: the state of existing or being enforceable.
6. EFFECT [noun, usually found in the plural]: a possession.
7. AFFECT [noun]: an external display of emotion. This is a specific term used in fields such as psychology and neurology; it’s rarely heard in everyday speech.

There are a few more specialised meanings, used in fields such as engineering, cinematography and physics, and at least one archaic meaning, but the definitions above should suit most purposes.

The semantic overlap (although not grammatical overlap) between [1] and [2] is what seems to cause confusion in some people.

@James, agree totally with the points you have made.

I work in an government dept where interpretation of the law and how it is written are fundamental (ATO) so I defiantly do not want to see bad grammar or ambiguity in legislation, but I’m not as concerned with conversational grammar or abbreviations in emails for example.

One thing that does get up my nose are grammar Nazis who take on an air of superiority whenever they get a chance to correct someone, they need to get a life.

Actually the one which is bothering me right now is “substitute”.

I would say, in the future, we will substitute Pruises for Falcons. But three people have told me this week, it should be the other way around ! Am I wrong ?

@Bonnie, can you start a grammar blog please so I can show my children and students that I am not the only person who cares about these things?

@Louise of SA, some day I just may do that.

Regarding the prescriptivist vs. descriptivist and “language change is inevitable” arguments outlined by @James: my field is linguistics, so I’ve heard them all before. And yes, some rules, such as a few of those put forward by Bishop Lowth, are just plain silly. But that’s not to say that anything goes. If there were no rules that are generally agreed upon by speakers of a language at a given time, it would simply be impossible to write a grammar, a lexicon, or even a phonemic inventory, in any language. It would be like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

I remember one of my earliest lectures in first year linguistics, many years ago now, when the lecturer explained that linguists are only concerned with how people *do* speak, not how they *should* speak. In the next breath, she said that if anyone tried to test that little theory by handing in an essay written in anything less than standard, formal English, they would be heavily penalised.

Was that hypocritical of her? I thought so at first, but I’ve long since changed my mind. The conclusion I’ve reached is a refinement of the prescriptivist vs descriptivist argument. It is: linguists are concerned with the beliefs people hold about how people should speak, about what people believe “sounds right” in their own minds, because everyone – *everyone* – is prescriptivist to some degree, no matter how liberal and tolerant they may think they are. We differ only in where we draw the line.

We all hear and read some things that are technically correct but which we think sound stuffy and overly formal; some things which break the rules of standard English but which we don’t even recognise as “wrong” because they sound perfectly OK to us; some things where we think “hmmm, that doesn’t sound quite right; I wouldn’t say it like that, but I’ll let it pass”; and some things which are like fingernails on a blackboard. We all have these reactions. We differ only in exactly what it is that pushes our buttons. To take the example with which @Daniel began this discussion: many people don’t care about the “less vs fewer” debate in the slightest; some think “fewer” is overly stuffy; some have a “hmmmm” reaction to “less” used with countable nouns, but aren’t too bothered; and some can’t stand it. For other grammatical constructions and pronunciations, we’d probably align ourselves differently. To say “I’m a really cool, easygoing kind of guy, and you’re a stuffy pedant” is far too simplistic.

If you believe that this theory doesn’t apply to you, that you’d tolerate pretty much anything, then allow me to present my mother. She is a native speaker of English, umpteenth generation Australian (I forget how many), but she has an absolutely regular past tense form of the verb “to be”, namely “was”. I was, you was, he was, we was, they was. Still feeling tolerant? If you met my mother, would you still be prepared to accept her speech without judging her in the slightest? Perhaps Mum is simply on the vanguard of a whole new paradigm shift! – after all, language changes all the time, doesn’t it? Maybe in a hundred years, we’ll all be speaking like my mum.

I’d venture to say that most of you, if you’re being honest with yourselves, would be suppressing a grimace and correcting my mother’s speech, at least in your own mind even if you were too polite to do so aloud. As for me, I grew up with it, so I tend not even to notice it anymore. It’s just part of Mum’s idiolect.

Language though, is a standard, and the more it gets changed by common usage from different parts of the world, the less widely understood it will be. When you consider that what you say on the internet is viewed all over the world, you ought to seek to make it widely understood, including by people who comprehend English poorly.

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