Every writer needs to maintain a high standard of grammar and have a good understanding of key components of writing. Keep yourself sharp by testing your knowledge…
There is a grammatical rule that when you are referring to a reduced mass that is practically unquantifiable, you use the word less (less sugar, less pressure), and when referring to grouped items, you use the word fewer (fewer cars, fewer worries). Fewer is therefore used with any plural.
Do you know this rule? Do you apply it (consciously or intuitively)?
As the examples illustrate, many Australians ignore or are unaware of this rule. Use of the word fewer is becoming increasingly sparse. It is likely that the distinction between less and fewer is not being taught in schools (as demonstrated by the advertisement for St Michael’s). It’s common to read things like ‘since the improvements, there have been less problems with this technology.’
The Australian Style Manual notes that the less/fewer distinction is little more than a century old and that, in spoken English and informal writing, less is often used for both plural count nouns and singular mass nouns, while fewer is applied to plural count nouns in formal writing. Perhaps you’ll just tell me to stress less, but is it actually a good idea to ignore grammatical rules in everyday speech and then expect ourselves to switch them back on when we sit down to write something serious?
You may be of the opinion that fewer is no longer necessary and should be used only in formal writing, if at all. Before reaching that conclusion, consider the following three points.
First, in spoken English it is easier to say ‘fewer steps’ or ‘fewer days’ than it is to say ‘less steps’ or ‘less days’. Using fewer avoids the stilting s-sounds that can trip up a reader and therefore makes your writing sound neater.
Secondly, some of your readers are likely to favour the continued use of fewer and may be affronted by your grammatical error. If your reader is a competition judge, a client or your prospective employer or editor, ignoring the rule may damage your professional chances. It is safer to comply with grammatical rules than to risk offending any reader.
Thirdly, the distinction between less and fewer is equivalent to the difference between much and many, and only the uneducated break the much/many rule. If you have too much rice, you want less rice, and if you have too many debts, you’d prefer fewer debts; you wouldn’t say that you have too many rice or too much debts. So as long as the much/many rule is clear, why should a writer ignore the less/fewer rule?
The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 376 (June–August 2012).