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:
Disgusted of Chelsea:
My faith in @ is shattered, I tell you, shattered. Their ad at checkout:
“Less worries. More sandcastles.” AAAARGGH.
Is there anything we can do to help?
Very kind but am in shock. Civilisation tottering.
Ideally change wording to “fewer worries” or “less worry”?
Probably not cost effective?
We’re sorry you don’t feel we’ve got our ad right.
We’ll share your comments with the team. Thanks
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
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)
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?
- 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.”