Pedantique-Ryter: Less is More. Or Is It Fewer?

Less? Or fewer? This Pedantique-Ryter post is dedicated to that Disgusted of Chelsea (no names, no pack drill) who had this exchange on Twitter recently, after shopping in Marks & Spencer:

exclamation mark in fire for less or fewerDisgusted of Chelsea:
My faith in @marksandspencer is shattered, I tell you, shattered. Their ad at checkout:
“Less worries. More sandcastles.” AAAARGGH.
M&S
Is there anything we can do to help?
DoC
Very kind but am in shock. Civilisation tottering.
Ideally change wording to “fewer worries” or “less worry”?
Probably not cost effective?
M&S
We’re sorry you don’t feel we’ve got our ad right.
We’ll share your comments with the team. Thanks
DoC
It’s like a needle under a nail to me.
Team could try Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage?

Civilisation tottering? Well, maybe DoC’s irony went a bit far there, but Pedantique-Ryter admits to feeling the needle under the nail, too.
Fewer? Less? Are they interchangeable? If not, how and when should they be used?
Read on to find out the Pedantique-Ryter answer.
(The M&S team, though polite and responsive, may be struggling with this, so may we suggest they read on, too? After all, Pedantique-Ryter’s advice is free. It may even prove useful.)

If it’s countable, it’s fewer. If it’s not countable, it’s less.

My inspiration for this post, whom I’ve called Disgusted of Chelsea (though that’s not her twitter handle), recommended Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Fowler is indeed good on this subject.

But, actually, there’s a very simple rule:
if what you’re referring to is countable, you use fewer
if it’s not countable, not separable, you use less

So…

Less sand. Fewer sandcastles.

Would-be pedants out there may be shouting at the screen, “But you can count sand. It comes in grains.”

True. But for the less/fewer choice, what matters is the word used on the page, not aspects of that word that we may know about, but which are not on the page. For example:

My beach has less sand than your beach
My beach has fewer grains of sand than your beach
(and I know because I counted them, as pedants do)

Another example:

I wish I had less shopping to carry
I wish I had fewer shopping bags to carry

to which the pedant might answer:

well then, spend less money in the shops
well then, spend fewer of your hard-earned pounds in the shops

Pedantique-Ryter Tip: Less or Fewer?

In summary:

  • look at the word on the page that you intend to qualify with less or fewer
  • is it countable? separable? if it is, use fewer
  • is it uncountable? if so, use less
  • and don’t kid yourself that things are countable (like sand or shopping) when, in fact, they only become countable by adding extra words (like grains of, bags).
    That would be cheating in order to justify your incorrect word choice, wouldn’t it?

A final aside, on apologies that aren’t apologies

This is definitely a Pedantique-Ryter soapbox issue. DoC may or may not agree.

When is an apology not an apology?
When it starts, “We are sorry that you feel x or y wasn’t right…”

A proper apology — @marksandspencer might like to note? — is on the lines of “We are sorry that we got our ad wrong.” Alternatively, if the organisation isn’t sure it’s actually in the wrong, it could say, “We are sorry if we got our ad wrong.”

But “We are sorry that you feel” is not, repeat not, an apology. It is a patronising arm around the inferior’s shoulder, an adult patting a child on the head, saying, “There, there. Never mind, dear. You’ll feel better soon.”

So, dear businesses, if you want your customer care teams to apologise to your customers in a way that works, never, never use the increasingly common formula, “We are sorry that you feel…” If you do, your customer may simply walk away.
Better not to apologise at all than to apologise using the we’re-sorry-you-feel formula.
[End of I. Pedantique-Ryter soapbox rant. For now 😉 ]

19 thoughts on “Pedantique-Ryter: Less is More. Or Is It Fewer?

  1. Louise Allen

    Ticking all my boxes here – although you can add ‘apologies for *any* inconvenience’ on notices where it is patently obvious that there is going to be inconvenience – and a lot of it!
    I always use the ‘less sugar, fewer sugar cubes’ example – counting grains again.

    Reply
    1. Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter Post author

      I agree on both points, dear gel. Let’s hope that one of us, whether with sand or sugar, gets the point across.

      Reply
  2. lesley2cats

    Oh, excellent! As anyone who was at Jill M’s launch last year will know this is one of my pet beefs. (She called me out on it in her speech.) I shout, mutter or scream at the radio and television regularly. And then the apology – two wonderful rants in one post. Terrific.

    Reply
    1. Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter Post author

      There are times, I fear, Lesley m’dear, when even cultured persons like ourselves have no option but to rant. Feel free to join in.

      Reply
  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Immensely useful, thank you. I tend to go on *that sounds wrong* so an actual countable/uncountable rule helps. That, of course, is if I manage to remember it next time.
    And yes, I hate that *we are sorry you feel* business too.

    Reply
    1. Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter Post author

      Glad you find it helpful, Elizabeth. Just keep repeating “less sand, fewer sandcastles” or Louise’s example: “less sugar, fewer sugar cubes”. Eventually, it may stick.

      Reply
  4. lynnepardoe

    Great!! I always get miffed when legal types say, ‘we would like to inform you…’, I think well, you are informing me, are you not? surely ‘would like to..’ offers an air of uncertainty about it. What does Ms Pedantique-Righter say? She is generally the font of all grammar knowledge.

    Reply
    1. Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter Post author

      I understand your frustration, Lynne. It’s rather similar to “Sorry you feel that” because the speaker believes (wrongly, of course) that by dressing up his/her words in that smarmy fashion, it will make it easier to communicate unwelcome information. I think it is, to a large extent, habit. And one of the reasons why I have taken on the task of blogging here at Libertà Books is to try to break people of slovenly habits of speaking and writing. It is, however, an uphill task 😉

      Reply
  5. Sue McCormick

    I can’t tell, of course, because I have no record of past usage. I believe that I have always gotten this said correctly.

    But, thanks to this post, I now have a check item. I will make fewer mistakes in this usage and will spend less time in deciding on the proper phrase.

    Reply
    1. Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter Post author

      Glad to have been of use, Sue. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment.

      Reply
  6. Natalie Kleinman

    Dear Dame Isadora
    Sadly my butterfly mind/lateral thinking took me to imagining that the sugar (in whatever form) might eventually stick, sugar being, well, sticky. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t concentrating. Great post.
    Yours…tempted to put most sincerely but surely if it’s sincerely then most is implicit.
    Fellow pedant

    Reply
    1. Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter Post author

      Dear Fellow Pedant
      Thank you for making me laugh this morning. Splendid stuff.

      Reply
  7. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Hurray for Dame Isadora! My mother used to say, ‘Less cheese, fewer biscuits’ and all too frequently I find myself muttering this under my breath whenever I hear someone getting it wrong.

    Reply
    1. Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter Post author

      It seems I have struck a chord this time. “Less cheese, fewer biscuits” is up there with “less sugar, fewer sugar cubes” I think.

      Reply
  8. Julie Stock

    Fab post on this point – it’s a favourite grumble in our family! We all know how to use less/fewer correctly and go round the house shouting it out whenever we hear it said incorrectly on the TV. So proud that our two teenagers are confident in their use, even with all their vernacular 😉

    Reply
    1. Dame Isadora Pedantique-Ryter Post author

      As I said earlier, this seems to have struck a chord with viewers. Clearly the visitors to this website are a class above the ordinary when it comes to correct English. Excellent.

      Reply

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