Real Vocabulary Quiz, Question 10: Which is right: “less cars” or “fewer cars”?

Posted by on June 20, 2016

Real VocabularyOur Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use often undermines or contradicts the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.

In this series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we’re bringing you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.

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In the tenth and last question in our Real Vocabulary quiz, we asked whether it was acceptable to use less (rather than fewer) in a sentence like this:

There are less cars in Paris than there were two years ago.

According to a well-established traditional rule, we should use less with uncountable nouns (like traffic, rain, or trouble) and fewer when referring to things that can be counted (like cars, showers, or problems). The well-known “authorities” on usage are pretty much united in their agreement that this is a straightforward case of right and wrong – and if we follow their lead, our sample sentence (less cars in Paris) is clearly unacceptable. Indeed, two years ago the British supermarket chain Tesco “won” the 2014 Bad Grammar Awards for their slogan “Same luxury, less lorries” – a grammatical blunder which caused a storm of outrage on social media and an animated discussion on (of all places) Mumsnet.

The rule is quite simple … or is it? In fact there are a number of exceptions, where even prescriptivists accept that less can (or even should) be used with countable nouns. These include expressions like:

You can buy one for a thousand dollars or less.
The plane exploded less than ten minutes after take-off.
That’s one less problem for us to worry about.

Traditionalists like Grammar Girl explain these exceptions by saying that they refer to an amount, and amounts (as opposed to numbers) are uncountable:

Although a thousand dollars is certainly countable—a bank teller will do it for you gladly—we routinely ignore that fact and think of them as singular amounts.

This isn’t very convincing. It turns out that what looks like a clear rule is in fact quite complicated. What’s more, this rule has not existed from time immemorial but was “invented” some time after Dr Johnson published his great dictionary in 1755. Johnson’s entry for the word less includes a quotation from the philosopher John Locke (a writer Johnson admired), which begins:

All the ideas that are … capable of increase by the addition of any equal or less parts, …

But things changed in the late 18th century. One of the best analyses of the issue comes in a post by Jonathon Owen (who has also written on grammar for the Macmillan blog). Owen points out that:

People have been using less with plural nouns for as long as English has existed.

He backs this up with a quote (dated AD 888) from no less than Alfred the Great. He also pins down the exact date (1770) when the now-familiar rule was introduced, by a grammarian named Robert Baker. But even Baker was only expressing an opinion: he thought that “when speaking of a Number … I should think Fewer would do better”. (Note the fairly tentative  “I should think…”) Over time, what Baker saw as a stylistic suggestion (he thought it “more elegant” to use fewer with plural nouns) hardened into an inviolable rule.

What does the language data tell us? The idea that less should never be used with plural nouns is very entrenched – it’s one of those rules which almost everyone knows. So it’s not surprising that a large majority of writers and speakers favour fewer when the noun that follows is in the plural. But if you compare the data in the 25-year-old British National Corpus with what we find in a large corpus from 2013, there is a clear (if still small) trend towards using less. The evidence shows that (where a plural noun follows immediately) the use of fewer has remained stable, at around 12 hits per million words in the BNC and 12.5 in the 2013 corpus. But across that period, the incidence of less+plural noun has risen from 2.5 times per million words (BNC) to almost 7 per million (2013). Even in the BNC it is not difficult to find counter-examples – and from “serious” sources too:

Extra staff will mean that the three branches will duplicate each other’s work, and there will be less resources for environmental activities.
Fossils from more recent strata showed progressively less similarities with time in the different continents.

After all that, how do we answer the question posed at the beginning? On the one hand, there is no rational basis for the rule about using less only with uncountable nouns, and to do this will not cause any confusion about the meaning you want to convey. So it is equally acceptable to say “there are less cars” or “there are fewer cars”; the choice is more a matter of style and register (“fewer cars” has a slightly more formal feel) than of “correctness”. On the other hand, it is useful to be aware of the history of this “rule”, and of the strong feelings some people have about it.

To learn more about Real Vocabulary, keep a close eye on our Real Vocabulary page. You can also follow this topic using #realvocabulary on Twitter, and remember that you can find all the blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realvocabulary”.

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