Obooki’s Modern English Usage: Less is Fewer

Nothing garners comments like a petty discussion on the English language, as demonstrated by this article in The Guardian yesterday. Just as there’s nothing that pleases large parts of the English people more than to point out someone else’s incorrect usage of the language, based at least on their made-up eighteenth-century rules. A particular good variety of this is the man who claims not to be prescriptive but everybody who doesn’t use the rule is wrong, as for example this:

There’s a difference between variety and just plain getting shit wrong. Languages evolve and change, but at any given time, there is a correct way to say something and an incorrect way to say it. I don’t “police” people, but I make no apology for believing that people should be able to speak their own language correctly. “Fewer people” is correct. “Less people” is incorrect. If you say “less people”, you’re not demonstrating the delightful variety of English. You’re demonstrating an inability to speak your native language.

There are three things about this I find particularly pleasing:

  1. How much his talk of a static language and its simultaneous change over time reminds me of Zeno’s paradox (paradoxes being, in Obooki’s definition – as also the classical definition – a sure sign that something’s been badly thought out in the first place)
  2. How the mixing of the discrete and continuous this implies (see bottom for definitions) mirrors the issues around “less” and “fewer”
  3. How it got the second highest number of recommends.

Now, if you want to really annoy in a conversation, what you should do is to break in across what I’m saying and point out to me that I just used the word “less” when I should have said “fewer”. I probably won’t speak again for a time.

The rule, for those who don’t know, goes something like this, to paraphrase Wikipedia:

fewer is the prescribed comparative to be used in relation to grammatically plural, discretely quantifiable nouns, i.e., count nouns; the comparative less, it is argued, should be used when speaking of a grammatically singular noun (including mass nouns)

That is to say: you would say, “I want less cabbage”, but “I want fewer potatoes” – but if you were talking about whole cabbages, you would say, “I want fewer cabbages” – but if Adam had five potatoes and Emma had four, then you would say “Emma has fewer cabbages than Adam”, and when asked why, you would “because four is less than five”.

Almost no ordinary folk in Britain observe this “rule”: it is, in fact, only obeyed by pedants who have no feeling for the English language. People endlessly use “less” instead of “fewer” without giving the matter the slightest thought. I’ve certainly never given the matter the slightest thought, despite the numerous occasions I have been caught up for it. I’ve continued happily using “less” as if no one had ever spoken.

The question as always, when confronted by one of these grammatical rules, is why. How did this rule come about? – Wikipedia again supplies an answer: according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, it was made up by a man called Baker in 1770, because he thought it sounded better. – This is the basis of the for argument. The basis of the against argument, as I say, is that no one has observed this rule either before or after 1770 (aside for the aforementioned pedants). People have in general used “less” and “fewer” as it seemed good to them.

In my investigations, however, I came upon perhaps a more interesting argument tha nBaker’s “would do better”. For it says in the dictionary that the word “less” is the comparative of “little” – little / less / least. Now here you could put forward a proper grammatical argument. “Little”, after all, can only be used of “continuous” concepts, such as height for instance: “the boy is little”; and also our friends the mass nouns, as in, “I only want a little cabbage” (you can’t say “I only want a little potatoes” / you’d have to say “I only want a few potatoes” / but if the potato was mashed, you could say “I only want a little potato” / and if you only wanted one single small potato, you could say the same).

Brilliant, eh? Then you’ve got a real grammatical rule: comparatives compare their original adjectives: therefore “fewer” is right, and “less” is wrong.

The only flaw in this argument that I can see, is the fact that “less” isn’t actually the comparative of “little” – not really, at least. It’s an imposter.

Let’s say at the outset that there are two usages of “little” here, which take different comparatives:

  1. There are ideas like height, which take the comparative “littler” – as in, “Emma is littler than Adam” (others might prefer “smaller”); you certainly cannot say “Emma is less than Adam” (not to mean in size, at least).
  2. There are the mass nouns, which take the comparative “less” – as in, “I want less salt on my cabbage” (you can’t say, “I want littler salt on my cabbage”).

Why this has come about is anybody’s guess – it’s as strange as most irregularities. As you may easily guess, the word “less” and the word “little” have different derivations. This is where I got out my middle English dictionary and started to wonder about the real meaning of “less”. After all, another problem of this comparative adjective, is that it also has a comparative adjective of its own: the adjective “lesser”, as in, “the lesser of two evils”, “the lesser-spotted woodpecker” (“the fewer-spotted woodpecker”?). The first instance, “the lesser of two evils”, is presumably a comparison of two evils which are already recognised as having the quality “less”, which must therefore be considered some kind of adjective – or perhaps “lesser” only applies to distinctions between two objects (as, for example, “elder”) (are they only two spotted woodpeckers?), a sort of dual then.

My conjecture around all this is that the word “less” derives from a whole coterie of middle English (and modern English words), like “lessen”, “lessing”, “leste”, which all have the sense of a “diminishing”, and which are also likely connected with the common analytic suffix “-less”, as in, “careless”, “heedless”, “unless”, which tend to have the sense of an absence or a lack. Proving useful, the word has then been taken up in all kinds of contexts for all kinds of uses (you can use it too as a preposition), but there’s never been any implication that it can only be used in discussing continuous items. Perhaps it’s failure is not to have entirely supplanted “fewer”; unlike it’s more powerful brother, “more” – as in, “I want more cabbage”; “I want more potatoes”.

Discrete/continuous: discrete things are things which can be individually identified (cats are discrete, so are sheep and chairs, so are particles of light); continuous things are things which exist in a sort of range or continuum (temperature is continuous, as also is colour, love, reality and waves of light). Words describing discrete things are specific (cat, sheep, chair, six); words describing continuous things are vague (warm, blue, “I love you”). It is Obooki’s view (occasionally) that one of the main problems of science is that, in fact, nothing is discrete.

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3 thoughts on “Obooki’s Modern English Usage: Less is Fewer

  1. You’ve obviously been lucky in love. I’ve got to admit that those signs in Tesco saying ’10 items or less’ were quite aggravating, and not just to me: now they say ‘up to 10 items’. I was deeply angered when I noticed a film called ’10 Items Or Less’. It’s probably an Obooki Prize-Winner.

  2. I’ve never been in Tesco since they used the slogan “Every Little Helps”. This seem such a dereliction of English grammar that I wasn’t convinced I could trust them any longer to supply me with basic foodstuffs.

  3. The now vanished Gateway was a major offender. The deli counter, I remember, was a grammatical minefield, with hand-written signs announcing ‘Ham’s’, ‘Sausedges’ and, once, ‘Bakon’. It was a smorgasbord of solecism.

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