I was at the store the other day. As often happens with this particular store, only two checkout lanes were open, and the lines became ever lengthier. The store manager didn’t open new lanes; instead, she said, “If you have less than five items, you can check out at Guest Services.”
In case she thought I hadn’t heard her grammatical error, she made the announcement at least five more times in a row. I had been relatively placid about the long lines and wait times until that point. I’m afraid, though, that my irritability flared after having to hear a barrage of the same grammatical error over and over again.
“Less” is a word meant to be used with general amounts or things that can’t be counted, such as sand in an hourglass. If I were comparing hourglasses (I don’t know why I would be shopping for such a thing or comparing them.), I might turn to my friend or a nearby shopper and say, “Do you think this hourglass has less sand than that one?”
“Fewer” refers to individual, countable items. When my brothers and I were kids, we would divvy up the bag of Starburst (mostly because my brothers would eat all of them before I even had a chance to have one or two). We would then compare our piles of Starburst and ensure that the numbers were correct: “I have fewer Starbursts than you do.” I’m sure we didn’t speak in such stilted language; in fact, we probably had a good row about the Starburst until our mother intervened and took away each of our piles of candy until we could be nice to each other.
I don’t know if those examples will help with the less versus fewer problem (I admit it’s a small problem in the grand scheme of grammar problems.). I only know that I think of sand when I think of “less,” and I think of candy when I think of “fewer.” How do you keep the two words straight? Also, if you have any writing wrongs in need of righting, let me know on my Facebook page.