Write Right: Less versus Fewer

Write RightI 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.

Comments

  1. You missed the most important detail- did you point out her error to her? I feel compelled to.  An article about dressing for the weather on the Huff Post this weekend had the author discussing “wind shield factor” for temperatures. I am quite certain she meant “wind chill factor” and felt compelled to email her (nicely!) about it.  No reply…

    •  @RebeccaTodd Haha! What happened to introverted Rebecca?
       
      I did not point out the error. It wouldn’t have done any good except to make the people standing in line behind me irritated that I was taking (perhaps wasting in their estimation) the time to point out a grammatical error.
       
      I’m curious as to what a wind shield factor would be. It sounds like it could be helpful information for people who live in blustery places. 😉

      •  @Erin F. Don’t confuse my introverted tendencies with lack of strong opinions…I love to take the grammatical high ground! It’s just social settings where I fall apart…I bailed on the BBQ Saturday and failed Ken’s challenge…

        •  @RebeccaTodd Ha! It is dangerous to assume that quiet people don’t have opinions. We usually do. We just don’t always share them as we’re thinking them.
           
          There will be more BBQs. It takes work, overcoming introverted tendencies. 🙂 I started small – introducing myself to one new person when I was in a social setting in which I already was familiar. The comfort of the setting made it a little easier to be brave and to introduce myself to someone I didn’t know. I still fail more than I succeed, but the ratio isn’t quite as bad as it used to be.
           
          Hmm. Maybe I should write some posts for the introverts in the crowd?

        •  @Erin F. Yes please! I love to read things with practical skills for managing my introversion. Things those Es take for granted.  For instance, I have to have scripted small talk both for business and personal settings or I just spew ridifilousness. 

        •  @RebeccaTodd Oh my. I author scripts when I make phone calls. If I get voice mail, I’ll say this; if I speak with a person, I’ll say this.
           
          I’ll add the topic to my ever-growing list in Evernote. 🙂 I think it’s one of those non-exhaustive topics. It could have a lot of facets to it.

  2. econundertow1 says:

     
    Believe it or not, “25 words or less” is a fixture in American marketing and has been for almost a half-century. Language = usage (also ungrammatical). Milton is ungrammatical, for crying out loud.

    •  @econundertow1 Certainly, but he was writing in an age when the rules of writing were in constant flux. He and Shakespeare were making up the rules as they went. Of course language always is in flux, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. If it isn’t, language will devolve into a series of “LOLs” and “totes.” Is “less” versus “fewer” a silly hangup? Perhaps, but it’s still a good rule to know.

      • econundertow1 says:

        @Erin F.@econundertow1
         econundertow1.
         
        Wow! It’s hard for me to respond in 25 words or less! Thanks for the reply!
         
        First of all, modern languages are artifacts of industrialization and standardization beginning with use of the printing press and moveable type. The first widely printed document was Luther’s 95 Theses in Wittenberg German, afterward came the Lutheran Bible (@ 1530) also in Wittenberg German which evolved into modern German b/c it was put into print, became widespread and distributed, then taught in schools. Prior to printed materials there was no need to learn how to read as there was little material available at a reasonable cost.
         
        Thomas Cranmer (1539) printed the first English Bible with widespread distribution. For the next hundred years or so there were many versions of the Bible including a Roman Catholic translation from Latin. The King James version along with other popular works by others evolved toward the ‘standardized’ non-colloquial English which became the language taught in schools. The greater volume of printed materials — in any language — the more standardized the usage, following along were national linguistic identities then various customs and economic unions.
         
        As with movable type, the new devices and modes of expression such as motion pictures, ‘beat’ idioms, radio and television advertising, now Internet and PDAs determine ‘common’ usage. Who is to say … Kerouac or James Joyce is wrong? There are fashions to everything including language: memorability is more important in a marketing-driven language environment than a standard usage.
         
        Apple Computer used the ‘Think Different’ catch phrase for a long time, I always thought, “what is ‘different’, a cat?”.  No doubt millions heard this phrase and thought to themselves, “Think different-LY”. Good marketing (leading to the tragic demise of adverbs everywhere).
         
        Language of today is loaded with jargon or acronyms, some of this is by design: technical language. Some is machine-determined as in 15th century. Why type with your fat fingers on tiny buttons ‘performance enhancing drugs’ when PED will do?
         
        Sorry to go on and rant, one of my pet peeves is the grammar nazi (that’s how I came by your blog in the first place) who threatens me with well-deserved obscurity because I used the term ’25 words or less’ instead of ‘fewer’. I reckon I risk obscurity because I have nothing to say.
         
        Thanks!

        •  @econundertow1 I believe it’s important to respond to comments. Not every blogger does, but if I’m going to have live comments, I have to be willing to moderate and to open myself to criticism.
           
          Thank you for the walk through history. I always have loved the subject.

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