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Picture of Kalleh
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We have discussed the correct use of fewer and less here a number of times. In my sometimes prescriptive ways, I have said that the wrong use of "fewer" and "less" is a pet peeve of mine. Yet...today I read that the merger of "fewer" and "less" has been around for awhile. Specifically...in 1579 John Lyly, according to the OED, wrote, "I think there are few Universities that have less faults than Oxford, many that have more."

As was said in the article, if "more" can pull double duty for both number and amount, why expect any less of "less?"
 
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Picture of Richard English
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It's always possible to find historical precedents for misuse but that doesn't mean that the misuse is any more accurate now than it was then.

The disctinction between "less" and "fewer" is a useful one.

"There are less trains" could mean that the trains are less frequent, or that there are fewer of them or maybe even that they are smaller.

"There are fewer trains" makes it quite clear that the numbers of trains has reduced for some unspecified reason.


Richard English
 
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Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, pages 692f.:

quote:
Here is the rule as it is usually encountered: fewer refers to number among things that are counted, and less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured. The rule is simple enough and easy to follow. It has only one fault—it is not accurate for all usage. If we were to write the rule from the observation of actual usage, it would be the same for fewer: fewer does refer to number among things that are counted. However, it would be different for less: less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted. Our amended rule describes the actual usage of the past thousand years or so.

As far as we have been able to discover, the received rule originated in 1770 as a comment on less:
quote:
This Word is commonly used in speaking of a Number; when I should think Fewer would do better. No Fewer than a hundred appears to me not only more elegant than no less than a hundred, but more strictly proper—Baker 1770

Baker's remarks about fewer express clearly and moderately—"I should think," "appears to me,"—his own taste and preference. It is instructive to compare Baker with one of the most recent college handbooks in our collection:
quote:
Fewer refers to quantities that can be counted individually ... Less is used for collective quantities that are not counted individually ... and for abstract characteristics—Trimmer & McCrimmon 1988

Notice how Baker's preference has been generalized and elevated to an absolute status, and his notice on contrary usage has been omitted. This approach is quite common in handbooks and schoolbooks, many pedagogues seem reluctant to share the often complicated facts about English with their students.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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This crops up regularly on the APS, as well. Their FAQ has a summary. I'm with Paul Doherty: not entirely on the side of the frothing-at-the-mouth brigade on this one.


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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Great perspectives, zmj and arnie. I am coming around, too, though generally I use "fewer" and "less" prescriptively.

One note I thought was helpful, Richard, was the comment about the use of "more" compared to "less."
 
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quote:
Originally posted by Richard English:

The disctinction between "less" and "fewer" is a useful one.

"There are less trains" could mean that the trains are less frequent, or that there are fewer of them or maybe even that they are smaller.

"There are fewer trains" makes it quite clear that the numbers of trains has reduced for some unspecified reason.


I don't see this distinction at all. "Less trains" means they are smaller? And "fewer trains" can mean they are less frequent or that their number is reduced.

Does anyone else know what Richard is talking about?
 
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quote:
Originally posted by goofy:

Does anyone else know what Richard is talking about?


No. Big Grin
 
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Ah, well, the literalist here can see what he meant. Less generally means not as much, so this would mean the train is smaller, whereas fewer means numbers of trains. Of course, no one would ever use less that way, I agree. I just get what he was saying.

I have a thing about fewer and less, too. It grates on me when people say they have "less grains of sand," for example. I know - that's ridiculous of me!
 
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I seriously doubt anyone ever said there are less trains meaning they are condensed in size. People would say trains are smaller, which is much more descriptive.


Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; give a man a fishing pole and he will find an excuse to never work again.
Nollidj is power.
 
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At an extreme stretch I can imagine how "less train" (rather than "less trains") might, just about possibly be construed as meaning the trains are shorter. If anyone ever has used it that way though ("We can't get on because there's less train than usual today.") I'd bet it would be intentionally a silly way to say it.


I'd bet money that no one has ever said "less trains" meaning that the trains are shorter though.
 
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quote:
I'd bet money that no one has ever said "less trains" meaning that the trains are shorter though.

There are fewer trains running and less cars available.


Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; give a man a fishing pole and he will find an excuse to never work again.
Nollidj is power.
 
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There are fewer trains running and less cars available.
There are fewer trains running and fewer cars available.
There are less trains running and less cars available.
There are less trains running and fewer cars available.

Don't these all mean the same thing?
 
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quote:
There are fewer trains running and less cars available.
There are fewer trains running and fewer cars available.
There are less trains running and less cars available.
There are less trains running and fewer cars available.


Don't these all mean the same thing?



I like the first for some reason

Along this line, I was just watching a vid about dangerous roads and the narrator said "The road is eight thousand meters high', and "It is 23 kilometers in distance." When I heard this I pictured an enormously built-up highway. And the road was a long way away from view. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as built at a height of... and being 23 K in length.


Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; give a man a fishing pole and he will find an excuse to never work again.
Nollidj is power.
 
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Picture of Kalleh
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quote:
I seriously doubt anyone ever said there are less trains meaning they are condensed in size.
Yes, proof, and I did agree on that (above). I could just understand Richard's point.

As for your sentences about fewer and less, Goofy, for the most part, no, there is no difference. However, I can understand the prescriptivist who thought there was.
 
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Kalleh, I don't think of myself as a prescriptivist, but I have to admit using 'less' for something countable has always bugged me. "Less sand on the beach" and "fewer grains of sand in my hand"-- I like the distinction, it makes for a more precise visual image. But I guess I'm OK with calling that 'style' instead of 'grammar'.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by bethree5:
"Less sand on the beach" and "fewer grains of sand in my hand"-- I like the distinction, it makes for a more precise visual image.


I agree, but you've changed more than less/fewer here, you've added the count noun "grains".

Fewer grains of sand in my hand.
Less grains of sand in my hand.

Irregardless of the fact that the second might sound wrong to you, would you agree that they both mean the same? I guess I'm trying to find an example where changing fewer to less would change the meaning.
 
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How about, "Forty less ten is thirty?" "Forty fewer ten..." seems to me incomprehensible.
 
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Good example but I need to refine my question because this "less" is a different grammatical category than the one we have been talking about. This is a conjunction like "minus", while the other one is a determiner (traditionally called an adjective).

So now my question is, is there an example where you can replace determiner (adjective) "fewer" with "less" and get a different meaning?
 
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Picture of Kalleh
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Probably not, Goofy. I gave that up on WC, though it still bugs me to hear something like less grains of sand.

quote:
Irregardless
This is another one of my pet peeves - again, not linguistically supported, but still a peeve.
 
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So you're a nonantidisestablismentarian? Roll Eyes

Kalleh, I do concur, but must acknowledge goofy's point. Being a peevologist I don't like to, but must nevertheless.
 
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Picture of Kalleh
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Well, all I meant in the first place was that I could understand Richard's comment - I hadn't made the comment, mind you; I could just understand it.
 
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