Thought for the day, June 27, 2018

“You will often be judged, fairly or unfairly, on your use of language, both written and spoken, so it makes sense to learn the standards that teachers, editors, and potential employers are inclined to respect. Grammar may be magical, but remember this: a magician is an illusionist, someone who learns the strategic uses of physics and engineering.”  (Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar)

Less or fewer? Can you count?

I’m not being snide. It’s about counting.

If you have items you can count, you need to use “fewer” to follow the standard usage guidelines. (What constitutes “standard” is up for much discussion, as any web search will readily confirm. I use it to mean “no one will look at you funny for using this, regardless of where you’re writing it.”) Those signs at the market that read “10 items or less” drive me batty, personally. I can count ten items. If I have fewer than 10, I’m okay. If I have eleven, I need to get in another line. (Unless the checker tells me it’s okay because there aren’t many people in the line.)

If you have an uncountable noun (like “intelligence” or “ability” or “music”), you need to use “less” to follow the standard guidelines. “John is less intelligent than Jake.” (John may have fewer IQ points. “Points” are countable. “Intelligence” is not.)

This job took less time than the last one.

This job took fewer hours than the last one.

“More” doesn’t have the same problem: You can have more time, and you can have more minutes. (English is fun, remember?)

Less art, fewer pictures.
Less art, fewer pictures.