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Less or fewer?

May 31, 2014

Grammatical purists insist on a distinction between less and fewer. Less is the comparative of little (the superlative is least) and it’s used to refer to littler amounts of nouns that can’t be counted – uncountable nouns (or mass nouns as they are sometimes called) such as snow, beer, energy etc. Fewer is the comparative of few and is used to refer to lower numbers of nouns that can be counted – countable nouns (or count nouns) such as snowflake, pint, calorie etc. For this reason, the sign you often see at supermarket checkouts, “Ten items or less” makes grammatical purists wince. Personally I am not too bothered about this rule – I’m aware of it but I don’t mind when other people fail to observe it and I don’t always observe it myself in speech, though I probably would in writing.

These observations are prompted by a letter in this fortnight’s Private Eye, which has caused me to stroke my chin thoughtfully. In Pedants’ Corner on the letters page, Jago Tremain writes giving examples to explain this rule: “Fewer bottles, less milk; fewer politicians, less drivel; and so on. Similarly, fewer than ten stops, less than ten miles”.

Well, those first two examples are fine, but the third one leaves me perplexed. Stops are of course countable; but so are miles (that’s how come we have mileometers and mileage signs). Why not fewer miles? Has Jago Tremain got this wrong? Or do I understand the rule less well than I thought? 

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One Comment
  1. I suppose the thinking is that it is the distance which is less, not the number of miles, distance being non-discrete like fluids or “drivel”. It’s too ambiguous an example to give as an explanation, I’d have thought, but “we’re fewer than ten miles away” does have a slightly different meaning from “we’re less than ten miles away”. Doesn’t it?

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