Friday, June 05, 2009

Fewer words?

In the UK people are losing the ability to discern when to use the word "less" and when it should be "fewer".

Less is used when dealing in quantities, fewer when describing something that can be counted.

So...

"We have fewer people in our team than we used to"
"I used less than a tank of petrol to drive to Scotland"
"Woah, dude! A little less ketchup please!"
"You may use this shopping aisle if you have 12 items or FEWER in your basket"

Why do I raise this now, you ask? Because in Australia they don't seem to have the word fewer AT ALL. Educated people don't use it, professional writers don't use it... noone uses it.

At first I thought I had discovered a whole nation to which I could teach the rule, but I have been thinking... is the rule just different out here?

Australians spell some things differently to the Brits, but they aren't American in their language either... perhaps over here the word fewer has genuinely died out from the language. In the UK people use it and use it wrongly. I think I prefer its full omission than inaccurate application.



5 comments:

Em's mum said...

No! No! No!
Educate the world Em.
Teach them how to use apostrophes too!

Loz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loz said...

I agree that it's always useful to know the meaning and application of words but I find the less and fewer debate over the checkout signs to be a little too fussy.

Words should be savoured and enjoyed, but language and it's use evolves constantly. As Mr Fry points out in one blog or another 'willy nilly' used to mean will you or won't you, but now means something quite different.

Ye and thee melted away, as did saying a-hoi-hoi when answering the telephone. I'd happily argue and froth when language becomes so bent and invented that it is intelligable (politicians, tech manuals and adverstising to name a few) but we all know what the 15 or less items means. As long as the meaning is conveyed we shouldn't get the sharpies out to correct anyones s's.

Bbox said...

Having been educated in Victoria, I don't remember any particular note on the difference between less and fewer. It certainly wasn't highlighted as an area of concern for children to know. Given the space restrictions for the '12 items or less' signs, I imagine it was simply efficiency of letters.

Language is a living, evolving organism that will change no matter how much any individual dislikes it. I absolutely detest the growth of the use of the word 'gotten' - it is not a word and seems to have been taken up by people who have limited imagination in constructing sentences who were initially confused by the familiarity of the feel of the word from 'forgotten'.

I was astounded to find, while working in an office in London for a company producing a weekly insert for the Daily Telegraph, that the Telegraph's official style guide allowed 'alright'. Astounded and appalled. Likewise, it seems writers were confused by 'already' and applied the same pattern to 'all right'.

Also, as far as I know, 'noone' should actually be 'no one' but that may simply have been a typo or oversight.

By the by, I'm not sure how the comments ordering works on Blogger - whether chronologically or reverse-chronologically - but I was quite amused by Loz' use of "s's" after Em's mum mentioned apostrophes, though that may have actually been direct reference if Loz was the first commenter. I assume she meant ss, Ss, "s"s or "S"s - or even Ss [<- that is an italicised S] or "... to correct any signs."

Bbox said...

Just to clarify, comments are in regular chronological order, despite my previous comment being timestamped 30 minutes before Loz'.

(See? This comment is just a few minutes after my previous one.)

Awesome work on the apostrophe, Loz.

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