Grandma's Tales

December 21, 2006

Grammar – 20 Less of it please!

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 11:38 pm

One of the headlines on NDTV today is “Study indicates less HIV cases in India”

Do you spot the error here? No? Check these sentences you hear often:

“Type it close. It means less pages to xerox.”
“How come there are less women in marketing?”
“The library bought less books this year.”

In all these sentences “less” is not the word you should be using. Why do we say “less” when we should be using the stronger, heavier “fewer” which is the right word here? Is it because “less” takes less effort to pronounce?

So what is wrong? “Less” is used for things that cannot be counted. That are measured. “Less” shows amount. A non-countable mass. As in “time” or “money”.
It takes less effort with better tools. I’ll finish it in less time if you stop talking. Talk less and work more. This plant needs less water. Less sugar, please!

Look at the words qualified by “less” in all these examples. Effort, time, talk,water, sugar – they cannot be counted individually. They are taken as whole “amounts”, the amount of water, the amount of sugar, the amount of talk…

The quantity of what can be counted individually should be indicated with the word “fewer”. “Fewer” points to numbers. We want fewer politicians speaking fewer words. The world would be a happy place with fewer criminals. It’s less likely you’ll win, if you make fewer attempts.
“Less likely”… see that? “Less” here has a different master. The poor, overworked word is used to quantify an adverb. Since the word is used to anchor both nouns and adverbs let’s not burden it further by atttaching it wrongly to countable nouns.

Adverbs, right? Look at this interesting way “less” and “fewer” clash.
How do you understand “less successful”? Easy, isn’t it? Someone who makes a few billion dollars less than Bill Gates. It is clear who “less successful professionals” are.

What if you come across “fewer successful pros”? This means there ARE successful pros but not as many as we think. Their number(taken as a quantity) is less than we thought. “Fewer” here talks of pros, not of “successful”.

So let’s pick “less” when we talk of mases of amounts, choose “fewer” for individually countable things. Like fewer books, fewer children, fewer mistakes, fewer pages, fewer hours…

Just a sec before the quiz. We also say, “I’ll take less than an hour to reach“. Hours of course can be counted and should be combined with “fewer”, but a word is missing here. That’s right, “less” should be tagged on to “time”. I’ll take less (time) than an hour to reach. We manage without that.

So “less HIV cases” is wrong. It is “fewer HIV cases”. We definitely vote for “fewer HIV cases”. We hope fewer and fewer people will fall victim to HIV.

Heave a sigh of relief. For both “less” and “fewer” the opposite is “more”. We can’t ask for anything more. It’s more water, more books, more sugar please, more girls in the party. Long live English grammar!

Quiz: less or fewer?
[1] There is _____ employment because there are _______ jobs.
[2] A shower takes _____water than a bath, so take _____ baths and more showers.
[3] I enjoyed his new film ____ than his last one.
[4] I spent ____ time on the first question than the second.
[5] I’ve been there ____ times than I should.
[6] It was ____ difficult than I’d thought it would be.
[7] The project is ____ complicated than the last one.
[8] There were _____ complications this time.
[9] There were ______ students at the college last year.
[10] For some reason I have been getting ______ marks in Math.


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