Less vs. fewer

 

Q:

I think that I have heard "less people than before" and "fewer people than before." Could you comment on this please? Thank you.

malbers
[email protected]
Posted 04 November 2002
A:
People is most frequently a plural count noun, a plural of person. As you know, few is the quantifier that goes with plural count nouns, such as a few chairs and a few cars. The comparative form of few is fewer. So, the logical and correct expression is fewer people than before.

Less is the comparative of little, which goes with noncount nouns, as in a little sugar and a little money.

Less also occurs with plural count nouns in expressing the following as a unit: in certain expressions of time, money, and distance, such as "less than three weeks," "less than $100," and "less than 200 miles."

Although less may occur with plural count nouns as in less people, it is not always acceptable to strict grammarians.


Rachel

A:
In formal, written English as well as in standard English conversation, the comparative form used with plural count nouns is fewer. Since English has many levels of formality—and informality—not all varieties obey this dictum. There seems to be a trend in English toward a "general" class of quantifiers and other similar expressions that embraces both mass (noncount) nouns and plural count nouns. For example, the most common form of the plural negative comparative used in supermarket Express checkouts is less, as in Less than (7/10/15) items. Only rarely does one encounter Fewer than (7/10/ 15) items.

Why this deviation from standard grammar? We should remember that less is already used with amounts of time, money, or any other aggregate entity that can be seen as an indivisible amount. For example, we say things like "Ten dollars is a lot to pay for a cup of coffee" or "Is six weeks enough time to finish your thesis?" Further, no less than is not condemned when used with plurals, as in "There were no less than fifty people injured in the accident." (Quote taken from Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman, 1985, sections 5.24 and 5.25). It’s therefore not so hard to use one form for both noncount and plural count nouns in other contexts. Less, in some informal English, is beginning to become the "unmarked," or default, form for both noncount and plural count nouns.

Another, similar, trend can be noted. Quirk et al. report that the noun "amount" is often used in place of "number" with plural count nouns, "despite objections to its usage," as in:

There were large amounts of tourists on the ferry.

This hall can seat a large amount of people. (Quirk et al.)

Recently on National Public Radio, a network that is not noted for careless grammar, a commentator said, "They poured a large amount of people and resources into this election."

The trend toward using quantifiers with plurals that are normally reserved for noncount nouns can also be noted on order forms in direct mail catalogs. Where one would ordinarily expect to see the word Number over the column that asks for "how many" items, we find instead Quantity. This usage of a determiner normally used with noncount nouns can be explained, I think, by the potential for confusion if the word Number is used, since the items in catalogs themselves have numbers.

Despite these inroads that are being made on the standard rules, it is always wise to respect the rules when writing or speaking in formal or academic contexts.

Marilyn Martin