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A line in the sand: how to make fewer mistakes and be less ignorant

Fewer or less? This is a grammatical mistake that really gets my goat. The problem is, it’s only my dad and I that seem to care.

When I was younger, my father always reprimanded me if I used ‘less’ when I really meant ‘fewer’. Every time I hear someone make this mistake, I hear my dad’s voice in my head, offering the correction.

Some would say he’s a stickler for old fashioned grammar because the word ‘fewer’ seems to be dying out completely. No one seems to use it any more. When I watch BBBC News 24, their highly paid and very professional journalists seem to have no idea that the word ‘fewer’ even exists.

Yet to my ears, they always sound a little bit ignorant. They lose authority, because they are making what to me is a basic and glaring grammatical mistake.

Now of course, this is always a problem for anyone writing or speaking publicly, such as on television: do you move with the times and adopt the casual grammar of everyday speech, or do you hold out for proper grammar. No one wants to be a fuddy-duddy but you also don’t want to be plain wrong and ungrammatical.

It’s a fine line to draw. But my line is drawn here, in the sand, between the words ‘fewer’ and ‘less’.

So what is the difference, you may ask. Well, I would contend that it is very easy to understand.

If there are lots of things, you use fewer: fewer drops of water; fewer grains of sand.

If there is one thing, you use less: less water, less sand.

If you can count the number then use fewer.

If it’s uncountable, or it’s a collective, then use less.

So, in the examples above, water is a collective – there is one body or mass of water, so you use less. But once you start to talk about many individual drops, you use fewer. Or at least, my dad I still do. Do you care, or am I stuck in a time warp here?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Airek January 22, 2008, 1:13 pm

    My vote is for sticking with the fewer, but leaving us “less” writers be. English changes. It’s not a sport exclusively for professionals and perfectionists anymore. Sometimes, the more we know the more we find fault. If we’re wrong, we’re not ignorant, just wrong. I do care about good grammar as far as it does not impede my creativity (completely different story), and no, I don’t think you’re stuck in a time warp. I believe writers should know the grammar well–it makes breaking the rules more fun 🙂