A few years ago I was reading a pedant’s thread on a forum and along with all the usual rants about people’s confusion between ‘lose’ and ‘loose’, someone piped up with ‘I hate people mixing up less and fewer’. Huh? What’s the difference? Someone else also didn’t know there was a difference, and said so (I was too busy lurking to actually own up to being an ignoramus) and so it was helpfully explained what the difference was.
I was enlightened!
So much so that, ever since, I’ve been evangelical in pulling people and places up when they’ve made this error. Except for Tesco. I haven’t pulled them up on their ‘10 items or less’ signs as I’m sure they’ve been told hundreds, if not thousands, of times and just can’t be arsed to change them all and are relying on most of their customers a) not knowing the difference; or b) not giving a shit as they’re in too much of a hurry to get home and eat their BOGOF pies, chips and cakes. Unlike Waitrose who have signs stating ‘10 items or fewer’ hanging above their tills next to the truffle oil and quail’s eggs.
I may have learnt to cope with Tesco’s sloppiness, but what I really can’t stand is seeing this error in websites for writing competitions. If I see a competition that states ‘2,000 words or less’, I want to scream. I at least want to slag off said competition on Twitter, but the last time I did that, I got accused of having a superiority complex.
So, here’s my idiot-proof guide to the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’:
If you can count the number, it’s ‘fewer’. I.e. if you have 5 biscuits (one, two, three, four, five) and you eat one, you have fewer biscuits (i.e. 4: one, two, three, four).
If it’s an amount of something, it’s ‘less’. I.e. If you have one biscuit and you eat a bit of it, you have less biscuit.
This analogy also works with pints of lager, glasses of wine, sticks of celery and weapons of mass destruction.