The words less and fewer are a troublesome pair. There is a lot of variation in the way that people use them, but traditionalists insist that this is wrong and the two words are never interchangeable. What’s the difference? How does one decide which word to use? Let’s ask the grammar books:
Painless Grammar – “If you can count them, use fewer. If you can’t count them use less”
When Good Grammar Happens to Bad People – “Strictly speaking, ‘less’ refers to a quantity or an amount of things that cannot be measured individually…and ‘fewer’ refers to a quantity among things can be counted”
Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style – “Less and fewer cannot be interchanged. Less refers to items that form a whole or cannot be counted…while fewer refers to items that can be counted”
There’s a little bit of terminological confusion here that I want to address first. The Idiot’s Guide claims that less and fewer are words that refer to items, but this is incorrect. There is no such item that I can point to say “Look –A fewer!”. These words are not referring expressions. They are quantifiers.
All three of the books I quoted use the verb “count”, and so do many others. This is pretty much on point. Everyone, from traditional grammarians to theoretical linguists, divides English nouns into two categories called count nouns, and mass nouns. Mass nouns are sometimes called uncountable or non-count, but I prefer to use “mass” because I’m less likely to make any confusing spelling mistakes that way.
What is the difference between count and mass nouns? At first, defining “count” seems almost stupidly easy. If you can take a collection of items, then line them up and number them, they must be countable. Something like chair seems like a count noun, because we can imagine lining up chairs and counting them. Something like water appears not to be countable, because you can’t really line up water and number it. Even if we pour out water into individual glasses and count those, it still doesn’t feel like counting water, it feels like counting glasses. But why? What is it about water that makes it so hard to count? And what does it have in common with other mass nouns like fog or information?
There’s actually a huge academic literature on this topic, and there’s no way I can possibly do justice to it in blog post. Type “mass vs count noun” into Google Scholar and you’ll see what I mean. In the interests of brevity, I’m going to pick one relatively easy way of thinking about this, which is to consider what happens when you divide something into parts.
The test for “counthood” or “masshood” is this: after you divide stuff up, you look at the pieces, and if you would call the pieces by the same name as the whole, then it’s mass, and if you wouldn’t then it’s count.
Let’s use the noun mud as an example. Suppose you have a big pile of mud, and you shovel some of it away. What do you have left afterward? Mud, of course. Dividing up the stuff doesn’t change what we call it. The same goes with mass nouns like snow, sand, rain, water, and beer. If you divide up snow/sand/rain/water/beer into parts, each of the parts still counts as being snow/sand/rain/water/beer. Drinking half your beer still leaves you with beer. After a warm day, some snow will melt, and the stuff left behind is still snow.
Let’s compare that to a count noun like lamp. If I take a lamp, saw it in half, and toss half in the garbage, what do I have left? A lamp? No, half a lamp. Individual bits of a lamp don’t count as being a lamp the way that bits of mud, beer or snow still count as being mud, beer, or snow. Think about some other count nouns like chair, helicopter, and peanut. The arms of a chair don’t count as a chair, the blades of a helicopter don’t count as a helicopter and the shell of a peanut doesn’t count as a peanut.
If you start thinking about nouns this way, you may fall into a trap: since things don’t randomly change their physical properties, nouns must have a fixed category. Either they’re mass or they’re count. It follows from this that there will always be a right or wrong answer about less and fewer. This is certainly the view presented by grammar books, e.g. The Idiot’s Guide states categorically that “water is a mass noun that cannot be counted”.
This is a mistake. This isn’t a perfect test for mass/count, because there are some counter-examples. For instance, rope is something we tend to think of as countable, because it’s easy enough to line up ropes and number them. But what happens when you cut a rope in half? You’re still left with, well, rope, which makes it seem like a mass noun. Other nouns that work like this include furniture or cutlery.
Nouns in English do not inherently have a category of mass or count. Instead, there are grammatical constructions that we can use to express the mass/count distinction. We can plug any noun into these constructions, and the noun will be interpreted as either mass or count. Of course, some nouns are more easily interpreted one way over the other, but that has to do with facts about the real world, not English grammar.
It helps to give examples I think. Here are two constructions to consider: pluralization and bare singulars.
Pluralization is a feature of count nouns. The plural meaning of a count noun X is “many Xs”. The plural chairs means “more than one chair”; chair is a count noun.
(Sidenote: Actually, you might think of plural as meaning “not 1”, because in English, zero is plural. We say There are zero chairs not *There is zero chair. Fractions and negative numbers are another issue too. I won’t digress that direction right now.)
Still, it is actually commonplace for people to pluralize what seem like mass nouns. For instance, beer is a typical mass noun, but it isn’t unusual for people to use it in the plural: “We’d like three beers please” is a perfectly ordinary sentence. Just in case you think that beer drinkers are the type of mix up English, then replace beers with whiskeys or brandies or whatever highfalutin drink you like.
So if beer is a mass noun, is pluralizing it bad grammar? Not at all. Pluralization is not a test to see if something is mass or count. It’s a grammatical way encoding that something is a count noun. Saying three beers isn’t bad grammar – it just changes the meaning. A pluralized noun is understood as if it were countable, even if we might typically think of it as mass.
It is interesting that we mentally “enhance” these sentences to include a meaning of units or containers, in order to bring it in line with a count noun interpretation. For instance, “lots of wines” is usually understood to mean “lots of bottles of wine” or “lots of brands of wines” because those are conventional ways of separating wine. On the other hand, “lots of coffees” will be understood as “lots of cups of coffee”, or perhaps “lots of bags of coffee beans”. It probably won’t be understood as “lots of jugs of coffee” because coffee is not usually stored or served in jugs.
Some mass nouns are therefore harder than others to interpret as count nouns because there aren’t conventional ways of dividing it up. For instance, it is difficult for me to imagine when I would ever talk about “the muds” because I’m not sure how one divides up units of mud. But if the need arose, English grammar would be there waiting.
The bare singular
Count nouns in the singular must have an article, like a or the, in front of them. Mass nouns in the singular do not need an article (in this case they are called “bare”).
Again, this is not a test for distinguishing between mass and count nouns. Use of a singular noun without an article is a way that English grammar encodes the meaning of “mass”. If something that is typically a count noun is used without an article, then is interpreted as if it were a mass one. Here is an example:
A) There was a cake everywhere I looked at the party.
B) There was cake everywhere I looked at the party.
Sentence A describes a normal, if extravagant, scene at a party. The noun cake takes a count-interpretation. Sentence B describes more of a disaster scene at the party, with the noun cake taking on a mass-interpretation.
Although these categories are flexible, some count nouns are a lot harder to interpret this way, if it is even possible at all. For instance, I don’t think it makes sense to say “there was atom all over the place” (though physicists please correct me on this).
The fewer/less distinction
So what about the fewer/less distinction? The traditional rule is that the word less is used with mass nouns, and fewer with count nouns. If you observe the way that English is currently being used, you’ll find that this distinction is not so firm. For many speakers, the word less can be used in cases where, traditionally, only fewer would be acceptable. (I don’t have any historical data on this, so I don’t know if this is a recent change, but I suspect not.)
This has of course caught the ire of the prescriptivists. A few years ago, Daily Mail carried a story about British man Stefan Gatward, who said “he will not join the ‘5 items or less’ queue at the supermarket, in protest that the sign should read ‘five items or fewer’”. He was also given a ticket for vandalizing a sign by adding in an apostrophe, so we’re not talking about someone who can have a rational conversation about language.
I’m curious how he handled this boycott. Did he only ever go grocery shopping to purchase 6 or more things? If not, was he truly willing to wait in the non-express line? Say he only goes in to buy some milk, would he actually wait in line behind people with 50 items just to prove a point?
Mr. Gatward’s awkward shopping habits were triggered by the supermarket’s use of the word less along with the word items. He insists the correct grammar is fewer items, because items is a count noun. Mr. Gatward is not alone in making this complaint, and there have been successful campaigns to remove “less” from these signs.
What’s really going on with these words? Are people actually confused about how to use them? Of course not. I think it’s worth pointing out that that there is an asymmetry here. English speakers are only using less with count nouns, when traditionally it was only used with mass nouns. Sentences like You ate fewer burgers and You ate less burgers are now commonplace.
Nothing is happening in other direction. People are not using fewer with mass nouns. It’s still ungrammatical to say *I drank fewer water or *It snowed fewer. This is something I don’t see mentioned very often, probably because pointing out consistent grammatical patterns would detract from the complaints about the deterioration of English.
But wait, there’s more. In addition to the comparatives less and fewer, there are also some “absolutes”: much/little, which are used with mass nouns, and few/many which are used with count nouns. As far as I know, these words are not interchangeable in any dialects of English.
I’ve summarized this in the following table. For the “mass interpretation” column, I’ve made everything a bare singular, and for the “count interpretation” column I’ve made everything plural. The controversial use of less with count nouns is highlighted in bold. Ungrammatical combinations are indicated with a star.
Note that the phrase little cakes in the table is ambiguous. It has a grammatical interpretation where the word little is an adjective. It is ungrammatical if little is a quantifier.
The “doge” meme actually exploits this aspect of English grammar. They frequently involve unusual use of much and many. Here’s a well-known example of a doge picture, which include much pbs (referring to PBS the TV network) and many happy (where happy isn’t even a noun at all, but even *many happiness would still be ungrammatical).
Summarizing then: for some speakers, the word less can be used instead of fewer, under some circumstances. Nothing else has changed, and the mass/count distinction is alive and well in English. I think there’s even a reason for this shift, and for why it is an asymmetrical one.
Count nouns are explicitly marked as such by a plural suffix. I think that suffix carries the semantic “weight” in the sentence. The count noun interpretation you get from a plural overrides any mass-interpretation you might get from the word less. Pluralization becomes the most semantically significant thing, the use of less or fewer becomes unimportant, and varying between them doesn’t really change the meaning of the sentence.
Mass nouns, on the other hand, don’t have any kind of explicit marking. They don’t carry a plural suffix, and they have a bare singular without an article. In this case, the quantifier less carries more semantic “weight”, and it has to be there to give a mass interpretation.
Maybe that argument doesn’t make any sense. Maybe you disagree with it. Let me know in the comments. Whatever your reaction, I hope that you will at least think about what’s going on. Too often, language variation is presented as a negative thing that doesn’t require any explanation. We are simply told that it is wrong to use language in certain ways. If you’re using fewer instead of less, then you look dumb. End of discussion.
But “you’re dumb if you don’t talk like me” is not an argument. It’s gradeschool level name-calling. No professional linguist would try to convince you of anything by insulting you. When you find systematic variation in the way people use language, your first reaction should not be “people are stupid”. It should be “I wonder why they talk like that”.
As I explained at length in my post on “literally”, language change is not the same thing as disregard for grammar. When languages change, they always do so in reasonable ways. In the case of less/fewer, people aren’t suddenly using these words as spatial prepositions, or as synonyms for astronaut. If that was happening, that would be weird. Instead, people are using an existing grammatical resource (pluralization) to simplify one element of the mass/count distinction, without any loss in expressiveness.
Everyone just calm down, and let’s have less complaints about this, OK?