The distinction between fewer and less

In a recent note, M wrote: “Your answer to Evelynne LaSalle’s question mentioned something I’ve been grouching about for ages. You said that the quality of professional journalism has deteriorated. I couldn’t agree more. One big problem seems to be that journalists use all kinds of words the wrong way. I’m thinking of less and fewer.”

As M realizes, these two words are often abused. Less and fewer are not interchangeable. Less means, “not as much.” Fewer means, “not as many.”

We’re taught to use fewer only if the article described can be counted. Less is used with abstract ideas, like “honour” and “thought.” It also is used with things measured in bulk, such as snow or water.

Vermont Royster (1914-1996), former editor of the Wall Street Journal and winner of four Pulitzers for writing, in commenting on the distinction between less and fewer, said, “Fewer and fewer writers observe it, so the distinction is becoming less and less.”

Royster was onto something. It probably won’t be too long before less and fewer are officially accepted as synonyms. Either that, or fewer will disappear entirely.

That hasn’t happened yet and M’s point about professional writers misusing less and fewer is a good one.

Here are some recent examples of misuse found in print:

• Headline above Sun letter of July 3, 2015 — “Less commercials please.”

• In Free Press article of June 11, 2016 — “It was just farmland and the village of Birds Hill (had) less than 400 people.”

• Article by Joanne Pursaga in May 2, 2016, Sun — “Less than 60 per cent of Manitoba voters showed up.”

• Article in August 14, 2015 edition of Maclean’s — “Less than 10 Syrian refugees have applied for asylum.”

The rule is: When numbers are explicitly mentioned, the choice is fewer.

However, when percentages are involved, the noun referred to is the key to proper usage. Here’s advice from William Safire (1929-2009). “Less than 50 per cent of the new company’s employees chose to join a union.” Here, less is the wrong word. Safire explains that less would be correct if the sentence read, “Less than 50 per cent of the new company’s workforce ...”

Why? Because employees are individual persons no matter how plural the word is. They can be counted, whereas workforce, where employees are “lumped together” into an indeterminate group, is an entity that cannot be counted.

Less presents an additional problem. It is sometimes used with plural numbers which reference quantity, not number. Thus, it is correct to say, “He earns less than $500 per job.” In this example, the $500 represents a lump sum, not individual dollars.

Similarly, we might say, “It is less than 12 miles to my farm.” In this case, those 12 miles are not viewed as individual miles. Rather, they are seen as a figure of distance.

Confused? Then take heed of this advice from The London Times Style and Usage Book: “Less is quantity; fewer is number.”

Note: William Safire, a word/usage expert, wrote a long-time column on language for the New York Times.