What has happened to “fewer”?

Posted by on Oct 15, 2012 in Language usage | Comments Off on What has happened to “fewer”?

Say this sentence: there is fewer water in a lake than an ocean. Does this sound strange to you? If you are a native English speaker, it should.

Now try this: less people can apply for jobs. This should also sound strange, but for a growing number of people, it does not. I hear this coming both from highly educated people and uneducated people who do not know the difference between “less” and “fewer.” Advertisers have been contributing to the ungrammatical usage for several years now with statements like: more movies, less commercials. Besides sounding strange, it is poor grammar.

This is unfortunate because “fewer” and “less” have separate meanings that have served us well for several hundred years. “Few” and “fewer” refer to discrete objects that can be numbered. So “fewer cars” is correct because “cars” are obviously separate units.

“Less” refers to amounts that are not discrete items. “There is less water in this glass than in that glass.” “You get less gasoline for a dollar now than you did five years ago.”

Fewer gallons of gasoline (discrete, measured units); less gasoline (an unmeasured amount).

Are you unsure of which is correct? Here’s a rule of thumb: if you can count units (cars, pencils, people, etc.), then “fewer” is correct. There will be less of the rest.