In the same week the world’s last male northern white rhino, Sudan, was euthanased in his Kenyan conservancy, ABC Radio National’s Tiger Webb took us through the usage dilemma of “less” and “fewer”. It’s a jungle out there when it comes to grammar.
Tiger offered the standard explanation: fewer refers to numbers of things, less refers to quantities of things — so fewer jobs, but less employment. There was bite in his tale and he had much fun explaining “amendments” of this grammatical “rule” to reflect reality. Tiger’s conclusion burned bright: “Everyone else just wants this dispute to go away. Personally speaking, I couldn't care fewer.” He’s probably correct when he points out most grammarians who are sticklers for the “rule” probably don’t realise its origins are more than likely a “whim”. It seems the designation of less with count nouns emanates only from one 18th-century text: Robert Baker's Remarks on the English Language. Far from trying to force Latin grammatical structures onto the developing English language, Bob based his “rule” entirely on personal preference: “This word [less] is often used in speaking of a number, where I should think fewer would do better,” Baker wrote. Using fewer, he mused, was both “more elegant” and “more strictly proper”.
I don’t have a problem with the “rule” for less and fewer. It may not be hard and fast, but it’s a guide, a bit like giving way to the right at those intersections with stop signs on every corner. Things can change depending on timing and the mindset of other road users.
Catherine Traffis in her Grammarly Blog makes lucid good sense for fewer meaning “not as many”, and less meaning “not as much”. She says confusion possibly arises because they both represent the opposite of the comparative adjective “more”. English uses the same word, “more”, for a “greater number” and a “greater amount/quantity”. When a grammarian such as Traffis discusses usage of less and fewer in relation to weight, money, time and percentages, English comes alive.
The origin of white rhinos? A whim of nature? It’s sad there are fewer males – none – now that Sudan is sunning himself in the savannah in the sky. We’re impoverished as a species if we can’t conserve language and fauna, irrespective of origins. There’s room to go out on a whim in grammar’s jungle book. Uncountable nouns are always singular.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.