Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Fewer and Less

A friend asked me to explain the difference between "fewer" and "less". Here is the short answer.

Use "fewer" with number: fewer marbles.
Use "less" with quantity: less sugar

”Less” is often incorrectly used with number: There are less people here today than yesterday. It should be: There are fewer people here than yesterday

And the longer answer: "Fewer" is the comparative form of the adjective "few". "Less" is the comparative form of the adjective "little". We don't confuse these two words.

There are only a few marbles left. There is only a little sugar left.

"Fewest" is the superlative form of the adjective "few". "Least" is the superlative form of the adjective "little". We sometimes confuse these two words, but the error is less common: John has the least marbles. It should be: John has the fewest marbles.

In case you're wondering about the terms comparative and superlative, adjectives come in three forms: positive (regular), comparative, and superlative. Comparatives and superlatives are typically formed by adding the suffixes "er" and “est"to the word, or using "more" and "most" if the word has more than two syllables.

Tall, taller, tallest
Comfortable, more comfortable, most comfortable 

A few adjectives have irregular comparatives and superlatives.

Good, better, best
Bad, worse, worst
Far, farther, farthest

And, of course,

Little, less, least
Many, more, most
Much, more, most

And there, I think, is the reason for the confusion between "fewer" and "less". I may have fewer marbles but less sugar than Tom, but he has more marbles and more sugar. If "more" will denote either a greater number or greater quantity, why doesn't "less" denote either a smaller number or smaller quantity? Particularly when we have the phrase "more or less", which will do for either number or quantity, won't it? There were a hundred people in attendance, more or less. Only the most extreme grammatical fundamentalist would say "more or fewer". So it's easy to see why the error is so common: "There are less people here today than there were yesterday." No, there are fewer people here today than yesterday.

And since we've strayed a little from the original question, what about the comparative and superlative forms of adverbs? If the adverb ends in "ly", and most do, then the comparatives and superlatives are formed with "more" and "most", not the suffixes "er" and "best".

Simply, more simply, most simply

Grammarians across the country were shocked in the seventies when the Federal Government came out with a fitness advertisement which contained the slogan: "Breathe easier!" It should have been: "Breathe more easily!

Adverbs which don't end in "ly", usually have similar comparatives and superlatives to the  corresponding adjective.

Hard, harder, hardest
Well, better, best
Badly, worse, worst

By the way, be careful with the word "badly". You can't feel badly unless you have damaged nerve endings. If you upset someone, you will feel bad about it, not badly, in the same way that you would feel sad, not sadly. The adjective "bad" is modifying the person feeling, not the verb "feel". Just remember, when it comes to "feeling", use the word "bad" in the same way that you would use the word "sad".

"I feel sad that you will have to go alone. I feel bad about letting you down."

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