"less" vs "fewer"

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skullturf
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"less" vs "fewer"

Postby skullturf » Tue Apr 10, 2012 5:07 pm UTC

I hesitate to beat the prescriptivist/descriptivist dead horse. But I have a particular observation about the "less"/"fewer" issue that I think deserves to be pointed out to more people.

You're probably all aware that there is a history of some people saying that the word "less" should not be used with count nouns or discrete quantities, but only for mass nouns or continuous quantities. "Less cows" or "less problems" is considered incorrect by many people (they say it should be "fewer cows" and "fewer problems") but of course "less milk" or "less information" is fine.

You're all familiar with descriptivists vs prescriptivists in general, and with the "less"/"fewer" issue in particular. Many of you probably know that in fact, English has a long history of using "less" with count nouns, and the insistence upon "fewer" seems to stem from one writer's personal preferences around 1770. Link

I lean in a descriptivist direction, and most of you seem to as well. Nevertheless, I'm aware that many people object to "less cows" and "less problems", and in fact, especially in formal or professional contexts, I personally would probably give in to the pressure, and say and write "fewer cows" and "fewer problems".

I will admit that even to me, "less cows" and "less problems" seem slightly "off", and even though these things are often ultimately arbitrary and come down to aesthetic preferences, I have no doubt that people are being sincere when they object aesthetically to "less cows". Some people have a very strong distaste for that construction and find it grating, like nails on a chalkboard, and I believe that their aesthetic reaction is real.

Here, though, is the point that I'd like to make, and the observation that I'd like to make more widely known. We use the word "more" for both count nouns and mass nouns, and nobody objects. We happily say "more cows" and "more problems" as well as "more milk" and "more information".

From conversations with the folks who are opposed to "less cows", I gather that some of them think that "less cows" is somehow indicative of sloppy or careless thinking -- as though people who say "less cows" are unaware of, or insensitive to, the distinction between count nouns and mass nouns, or number and quantity, or discrete and continuous.

Such an objection is silly. I happily use the same symbol '<' when comparing integers like 3 < 5 and when comparing real numbers like 3.4 < 3.8. I use the same symbol even though I'm aware that the integers and the real numbers have different properties. We all happily say both "more cows" and "more milk" even though we understand why "three milk" or "five information" doesn't make sense.

I kind of want to say to those who object to "less cows", is it a defect in the language that we say both "more cows" and "more milk"? Is it sloppy to say both "more cows" and "more milk"? Does it lead to confusion? Would the language be improved if we had two different words for "more"? (We set aside the practical question of how to get people to "convert".)

If people want to object aesthetically to "less cows", I can't really stop them, and it's hard to argue about taste. But the double duty of the word "more" shows that the distinction between "less" and "fewer" is not a distinction that is somehow forced upon us by logic or mathematics.

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Gigano
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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby Gigano » Tue Apr 10, 2012 7:24 pm UTC

I do not think it's a fault in language to have an asymmetry in having different words to point out a change in quantity in one direction but not the other. Rather, I think it's a "fault" (i.e. superfluous) to have more than one word at all, like in the case of 'fewer' versus 'less', because functionally they do the same and someone will not interpret a difference when you say either "less cows" or "fewer cows". Both phrases denote a smaller number of cows. Someone might interpret the supposed "incorrect" use of fewer/less as a sign you do not know the difference in countability of say "cows" and "sugar", if he/she is really being pedantic. But that is simply ridiculous, because there are languages in which this difference does not affect the adjective. In my native language Dutch we do not have two different words to note fewer/less, we just have "minder" ("minder suiker, minder koeien" - less sugar, fewer cows) or "meer" ("meer suiker, meer koeien" - more sugar, more cows). I am sure there are more languages that share this feature.

On a personal note, as you may have noticed I am a descriptivist. I have been ever since I moved four years ago to a city where people speak different dialects and sociolects than where I had originally lived. At first I started to correct people whenever I heard someone making an error, at least according to the prescribed grammar. Someone convinced me though that I had no right whatsoever to point out someone was using "wrong" language, because there is no such thing as "wrong" language. As long as the essence of what we say can be understood by others, even though it may not obey "conventional" or "normal" rules, there is no objective argument to be made to pointing out that "less cows" is "wrong", no more than calling the grass "yellow" is wrong. As long as you call leaves "yellow", the bottom lamp of a traffic light "yellow" (i.e. you are consistent) then no-one has the right to correct you. That is not to say however that I support a general use of language to maximise understanding.
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DaFranker
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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby DaFranker » Tue Apr 10, 2012 7:46 pm UTC

As in Gigano's example of Dutch, many other languages do not even have a distinction for comparisons of mass or count nouns. In fact, some languages don't even make the distinction at all, for varying reasons, and often instead introduce a suffix or prefix indicating that we're talking about a group or multiple instances of the noun for things that don't have a particular word for their groups (or sometimes for words that do too, because humans are lazy like that).

French could be an example where "moins" and "plus" match "less" and "more" without any distinction between count and mass nouns. OTOH, French has other issues that I think would be much more complex to newcomers with grammar rules in other situations regarding numbers and plurality, including when to use and not to use "de la viande" or "des viandes" (meaning "[some] meat" and "[different types of] meat", respectively) and other such things in various scenarios which do depend on whether the noun is originally for a count or a mass.

In my humble opinion, "fewer" is merely a word for "less than few", and in some cases might feel completely wrong to me even where prescriptivists might correct the use of "less" for it; I particularly have problems when someone corrects my usage of "less" rather than "fewer" in cases where the amount in question is nowhere near "few" in the context. For example, I will never accept the use of "fewer" in any context where the number could be volatile or unpredictable, such as money; It will never be "fewer dollars" or "dollars fewer" for me, as there can be millions of dollars, and "fewer than millions of dollars" is not few, let alone fewer!

Of course, my personal opinion is probably biased slightly from knowing other languages that do not have this "rule" and having studied languages that don't even take the distinction between countable and uncountable objects as relevant.

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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby Qaanol » Tue Apr 10, 2012 8:16 pm UTC

DaFranker wrote:In my humble opinion, "fewer" is merely a word for "less than few", and in some cases might feel completely wrong to me even where prescriptivists might correct the use of "less" for it; I particularly have problems when someone corrects my usage of "less" rather than "fewer" in cases where the amount in question is nowhere near "few" in the context.

I think that’s rather silly. Do you also dislike saying one supersonic jet is slower than another, because it is nowhere near ‘slow’?
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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Apr 10, 2012 8:24 pm UTC

I think part of it is perceiving "more" as the comparative form of both "much" and "many", while "less" is only the comparative for "little". And since "little" used with a count noun would imply small size rather than small quantity, the distinction between the positive forms of "few" and "little" seems to carry over into their comparative forms of "fewer" and "less".
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skullturf
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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby skullturf » Tue Apr 10, 2012 8:34 pm UTC

Incidentally, "little milk" sounds ever so slightly stiff or old-fashioned in my idiolect, and I'd be much more likely to say or write "not much milk" or "a small amount of milk", despite the fact that those are longer. "I drink little milk these days" is OK, and not "wrong" exactly in my ears, but I'd be far more likely to say "I don't drink much milk these days."

DaFranker
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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby DaFranker » Tue Apr 10, 2012 9:18 pm UTC

Qaanol wrote:
DaFranker wrote:In my humble opinion, "fewer" is merely a word for "less than few", and in some cases might feel completely wrong to me even where prescriptivists might correct the use of "less" for it; I particularly have problems when someone corrects my usage of "less" rather than "fewer" in cases where the amount in question is nowhere near "few" in the context.

I think that’s rather silly. Do you also dislike saying one supersonic jet is slower than another, because it is nowhere near ‘slow’?

To answer that specific question directly and honestly, yes, I dislike saying that one supersonic jet is slower than another, mostly because of the potential implicit meanings and possible inferences of intent one might gather from my words. I would generally say that it's not up to par, not as fast, or simply contextualize the other jet and say that that one is faster, for general examples of alternative manners of speech/writing.

However, as for the real point of why I'd think it's fine for "slower" but not "fewer", I'm going to refrain myself from pointing fingers and calling out logical argumentative fallacies here. "Slower" and "fewer" have different origins, as do "slow" and "few". While they are both the correct term for relatively smaller values of their respective quantitative properties, "fewer" is the only one which is a relation of amounts (counts) rather than measures in "units". With absolute numbers (i.e. not purely relative and defined by the unit we decide) that are counted rather than measure, I tend to prefer the use of "less" and "more" rather than other terms. I'd like to cite examples and exceptions, but none come to mind at the moment.

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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby Derek » Tue Apr 10, 2012 9:41 pm UTC

skullturf wrote:Incidentally, "little milk" sounds ever so slightly stiff or old-fashioned in my idiolect, and I'd be much more likely to say or write "not much milk" or "a small amount of milk", despite the fact that those are longer. "I drink little milk these days" is OK, and not "wrong" exactly in my ears, but I'd be far more likely to say "I don't drink much milk these days."

I would say "I have a little milk".

OTOH, French has other issues that I think would be much more complex to newcomers with grammar rules in other situations regarding numbers and plurality, including when to use and not to use "de la viande" or "des viandes" (meaning "[some] meat" and "[different types of] meat", respectively) and other such things in various scenarios which do depend on whether the noun is originally for a count or a mass.

I'm not sure this is so different from English. If someone said "I have meat", I would think they have "some meat". If they said "I have meats", while it is an unusual construction, I would interpret it as meaning different types of meat (or a jocular plural). Wiktionary appears to confirm this interpretation:
5. (countable) A type of meat, by anatomic position and provenance. [from 16th c.]
The butchery's profit rate on various meats varies greatly

I suspect other mass nouns would follow similar patterns.

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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Apr 10, 2012 9:50 pm UTC

Derek wrote:I would say "I have a little milk".
Which has a different meaning. "A little" and "a few" are less strongly negative than "little" and "few". As in, "I have a few friends and a little money," would suggest that I'm not exceptionally popular or wealthy, but I get by, and am not unhappy with my lot, but, "I have few friends and little money," would suggest that I am lonely and poor.
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Sandor
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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby Sandor » Wed Apr 11, 2012 3:20 pm UTC

DaFranker wrote:I particularly have problems when someone corrects my usage of "less" rather than "fewer" in cases where the amount in question is nowhere near "few" in the context. For example, I will never accept the use of "fewer" in any context where the number could be volatile or unpredictable, such as money; It will never be "fewer dollars" or "dollars fewer" for me, as there can be millions of dollars, and "fewer than millions of dollars" is not few, let alone fewer!

I'm not sure money is a good example, because for many purposes it is effectively a continuous quantity, and the units often are divisible (e.g. pounds into pence, dollars into cents). I would probably only use fewer if I was talking about physical objects, such as coins or notes.

But then again, using less with count nouns doesn't bother me, and I'm sure I do it myself on occasion.

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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby Eugo » Fri May 25, 2012 3:17 pm UTC

Gigano wrote:I do not think it's a fault in language to have an asymmetry in having different words to point out a change in quantity in one direction but not the other. Rather, I think it's a "fault" (i.e. superfluous) to have more than one word at all, like in the case of 'fewer' versus 'less', because functionally they do the same and someone will not interpret a difference when you say either "less cows" or "fewer cows".

So, which one should go: many or more, little or few? Because there's a good pairing in both directions: many/few, much/little, it's only that the comparatives are glued: more/fewer, more/less, and so are the superlatives: most/fewest, most/least.
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chenille
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Re: "less" vs "fewer"

Postby chenille » Fri May 25, 2012 6:45 pm UTC

Just as a thought, while "less" might not have a double role like "more", the superlative "least" does. It can be the opposite of "most" when referring to quantities, but it can also be the opposite of "greatest" when referring to qualities. It's a sort of archaic use, but someone with the least cheese might simply have lots of poor stock; the extra word "fewest" avoids any confusion when you talk about the least cows. Maybe that influenced why these words developed in such an assymetric way.


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