The Opposite of More
I must tell you, readers, that if I keep having to smash my computers against my living room walls, I’m going to end up quite destitute, as those things are expensive. But every time I see in print a blatant error in basic grammar or usage, I feel compelled to hurl expensive things. Was I the only child who was required to learn these rules in school, and pass tests to verify that learning? How does someone hold on to employment in the writing field who has not mastered the fundamental principles of the English language? If such practices persist, I fear I may end up a homeless madman wandering the streets mumbling in well-formed sentences.
So once again, I come here to my weekly sanctuary to issue a reminder that just may help save me from such a descent.
There’s an expression that “less is more.” I won’t dispute it, though the intended meaning is usually that less is better. But let us for the moment accept the idiom. Less may indeed be more. But one thing that less is not is fewer. The words "less" and "fewer" are not interchangeable. We have both words in our language because—lo and behold—they communicate two different things.
This is really quite simple. It’s so simple, in fact, that this may end up being a very short edition of The Weekly Curmudgeon. If one is speaking of something that can’t be counted—liquid, sound, annoyance, and so forth—there may be more of it or there may be less. If a group of things can be evaluated numerically, there may be more of them or there may be fewer.
There may be more coffee, or there may be less. There may be more coffee beans, or there may be fewer (because beans can be counted, as any bean counter will confirm). “Less” applies to things like time, space, and my waning patience. “Fewer” applies to things like hats, porcupines, gramophones, smashed computers, and the number of times this lesson should have to be repeated.
When describing a decrease in the amount of vodka in the Curmudgeon's liquor cabinet, the correct word depends on how that decrease is described. If described using something that can be enumerated, there are now fewer of them. (How many liters of vodka are there? There are fewer.) If not, there is now less. (How much vodka is there? Sadly, there is less.)
How much time would I like to spend on this? Less. How many hours? Fewer. How much repetition should this require? How many repetitions? You get the idea.
These two words enjoy a clear division of labor. Properly used, they never overstep their job descriptions. Improperly used, they sound nonsensical. Therefore, just as there cannot be fewer decency, fewer water, or fewer traffic, there can never be less people, less opportunities, or less pens. There is no such thing as less pens. And yet I see and hear such impossible word combinations with relative frequency, and these atrocities are ofttimes committed by people who claim to be writers, reporters, or other practitioners of what we might call the business of words.
Why am I going on? You all know this already. The problem isn’t us, it’s the people who don’t read The Weekly Curmudgeon. And I’d certainly prefer it if there were fewer of them.