Gettable Grammar is a monthly series of conjectures, opinions and postulates by Karen Virag.
The question of when to use fewer and when to use less perplexes many people. Generally speaking, you should use fewer to refer to a smaller number and less to refer to a smaller amount. Another way to express this is that fewer applies to countable things, less to mass nouns. For example:
I have fewer hairs on my knuckles than Aunt Ethel has on her chin. The less money Aunt Ethel has, the fewer dollars she spends on hair removal cream.
So, let’s follow this principle and apply it to Aunt Ethel’s romantic history—she’s never been married, so she has had fewer than one husband. Or has she? Despite the fact that, as Zsa Zsa Gabor showed, husbands are countable, idiom takes over in a construction like this, and technically we should say “less than one husband” (though, in the vernacular we would probably say she has had no husband). As the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage tells us, the phrase “or less,” rather than the technically correct “or fewer” can follow countable nouns in idiomatic constructions that involve numbers, and expressions of measurement of time. For example, “Say it in100 words or less,” “She weighs less than 100 pounds” and “Their engagement lasted less than one week.” This is because even in particular contexts, countable items can be considered as quantities rather than numbers. This does not apply to the express check-out line at the grocery store, most of which have a sign saying “15 items or less.” Like husbands, grocery items are countable, so fewer is correct.
For American lexicographer and grammarian Bryan Garner the use of fewer in situations when lesser is idiomatic is a case of hypercorrection: “a mistake caused by simple-minded application of a rule that isn’t really so simple.” Bearing this in mind, never change the name of Alberta’s Lesser Slave Lake to Fewer Slave Lake.
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