Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fewer 'Less' Complaints, Please


"Sir, do you have 10 items?"
"I have less."
"Great -- come to this line, then."

Did the man say "I have less items"? No. He said he has less. It could mean less than that, or less stuff or it could simply mean less. Be the annoying stickler if you like and criticize him, and the signs, if they say "less items" or "10 or less items," but "less" is a perfectly good concept and a perfectly good word on its own, and "10 items or less" is perfectly fine. Don't go inferring a supposedly implied word to create an error so you can criticize it.

I have plenty to complain about at the supermarket as people park their shopping carts in the middle of aisles and pay with checks in the 21st goddamn century; I will not be joining the chorus of fussbudgets insisting that signs be made silly and pedantic.

24 comments:

Stephan said...

Hear, hear!

I'm glad most people out there seem to be coming down on this side of the 'argument' but rather annoyed it still needs to be said.

Jon Boy said...

Not to mention that "less" has been used with count nouns since the earliest days of English by such literary greats as King Alfred.

ITurnedOutTV said...

Huh, I'm not sure what you're arguing with "Don't go inferring a supposedly implied word to create an error so you can criticize it." Technically, "10 items or less" is incorrect. You're not arguing that, are you? I'm willing to ignore the supermarket signs, but I still recognize that "fewer" is correct with "items."

Bill said...

Yes, "fewer" is correct with "items." I'm saying the "less" in "10 items or less" isn't necessarily "with 'items.'"

ITurnedOutTV said...

Oh. So it could be "10 items or less [stuff than that]"? Interesting. Thanks for clarifying.

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

I agree with Bill's central point. It's as if there's a comma: "Ten items, or less [than that]".

Personally, I would never write "less items" or "less cows" or "less staplers". At the same time, though, I'm not going to raise a big stink about anyone who does (although of course, I would change it if I were a copy editor).

Here's the reason I can't get that worked up about "less staplers": the word "more" can do double duty. "More cows" and "more milk" are both fine. So it's not somehow inherently illogical for there to exist a single antonym that we can use for both count nouns and mass nouns, rather than having to say "fewer cows" and "less milk". The language isn't there right now, of course, but there's no reason why in principle it couldn't be.

Susan said...

It's an artificial distinction created by a grammarian, similar to the that/which distinction. It just contributes to language elitism. "Less" has been used with countable nouns for hundreds of years.

It would be different if using one or the other provided greater precision, but I don't see how, for example, "one fewer person" is more precise than "one less person," so...::shrug::

Mystkitty said...

It's interesting that the first thing I see when I come here is a complaint about the use of less. I've been hearing this used incorrectly on TV constantly lately and it drives me nuts. It's as bad as all these stars saying "Joey gave the XX to Jane and I." and "Joey and me are going to the movies." My grammar is far from perfect but these are such glaring errors. Sheesh.
Oh, and when did people start saying "I'm done with you?"? Is it a northern thing slipping south or have I just become aware of it?

Jeanne

Ninja Of The Mundane said...

I agree with you folks, but I urge patience with those who are finding "fewer than" hard to relinquish. We're talking, in many cases, about undoing decades of intense brainwashing by English teachers and journalism mentors. That's rarely accomplished overnight.

Jim Thomsen

Linda said...

Ohhhh ... I loved that movie! That is all.

Lance said...

Hang on - you're complaining about people using checks?
At least those slow pokes usually have cash in the bank. Wouldn't you rather wait on them than watch some idiot put his groceries on credit ('I'll take my gallon of milk on a payment plan, please')? Or some bum on welfare use food stamps to buy the BRAND NAMES that even you don't buy?

Bill said...

I am concerned only about being considerate of my fellow man and having that favor returned; I couldn't (not "could"!) care less about my lane neighbor's solvency, at least in this context.

P.S. said...

The distinction between "that" and "which," especially as they relate to the introduction of essential and non-essential phrases, is anything but "artificial." I'm talking to Susan.

Susan said...

@p.s. Oh, the that/which distinction is absolutely artificial... but I'm not saying it's not useful. I use it myself.

Stephen Jones said...

Susan has it quite right, though the distinction, like so many of its ilk, wasn't made by a grammarian but by an ignoramus. Less is quite correct with count nouns and the distinction is as artificial as the belief that you can't use "who or which in defining relative clauses.

Less than + cardinal number is four times as common in Contemporary American English than fewer than + cardinal number according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Cardinal number + plural noun + or + less is twice as common as Cardinal number + plural noun + or + fewer which puts paid to Bill's argument about having to use fewer when less refers to items. The only time fewer is more common than less with plural nouns is when we have the sequence fewer + plural noun which is eight times as common as less + plural noun (though only four times as common in British Contemporary English).

It would be nice if copy editors, instead of making up or parroting imaginary rules, actually bothered to find out what actually happens in English, but then it would be nice to get a pony for Christmas.

bensrib said...

Just because a usage is "four times as common" doesn't make it correct. Sorry, I just can't agree with this. But then, I've also taught my children that the correct response to "Who's there?" is "It is I." Not that they actually SAY that, but at least they know it's correct.

Bill said...

I've never bought into the "It is I" business. The fact that, coincidentally, an object is the same as the subject doesn't mean it's not the object. Or something like that. Yes, I know I'm alone here.

JD said...

All the supermarkets round my way have banned the use of checks/cheques. About time too.

Thea said...

But doesn't it feel so gratifying to pay in the '10 items or fewer' lane of Whole Foods?

The TEFL Tradesman said...

The correct answer to "Who's there?" is actually "I am". Ask any teacher of ESL!

me said...

Anyone who says "It is I" or tells others to say that is a pedantic moron.

absentchaos said...

I just read your similar article on your non-blog at http://www.theslot.com/than.html

I have to say, I was following right along until I read this:

"A high-school classmate of my wife's argued the point"

I gave up after that.

Bill said...

I can't tell whether this is a misguided objection to compound-modifier hyphenation, or a misguided objection to the double possessive, or a misguided objection to "argued the point."

absentchaos said...

"misguided objection to compound-modifier hyphenation, or a misguided objection to the double possessive, or a misguided objection to 'argued the point.'"

Double possessive, and I personally don't see why it would be misguided.

"A high-school classmate of my wife's argued the point..."

The classmate belongs to the wife. Having a double possessive makes no sense, at least to my mind.

Obviously, there are some cases where it makes sense to distinguish it, with forms such as "it was a picture of my father" versus "it was a picture of my father's."

"She was a friend of John" has always been the proper way of writing it, although people tend to say "She was a friend of John's" with the post genitive.

I tend to see the the question of when to use a double possessives as similar to the question of double negatives. Double negatives can be used, but are generally applied improperly in speech.