much less than quite a few

Yes, you have guessed right. The title gave me away. Few things annoy me more more than insistence on using fewer when less is as good (or better). I mean, it all was discussed ad nauseam already. But here we go again, another grammar quiz, another grammar discussion, another series of moans that the English language is going to the dogs. What, Scarlett Johansson dares to say “Less sugar, less bottles”? In the Super Bowl Commercial? Oh dear.

While few (or many) is used with count nouns and little (or much) is used with mass nouns, the “rule” that comparative less and superlative least cannot be used with count nouns is debatable. Five years ago, Tesco (in)famously changed their “Ten items or less” checkout sign after complaints from some language purists. But this rule goes against both historical and modern usage of less with count nouns. Michael Swan says in his classic Practical English Usage (3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 301):

Less is quite common before plural nouns, as well as uncountables, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect.

Not most, not even many — just some people. While most people apparently consider it just fine to use less.

Henry Hitchings writes in The Language Wars: A History of Proper English:

…there is always someone who is irked by the sign in the supermarket that says ‘Five items or less’. Shouldn’t it be ‘Five items or fewer’? One way round this, adopted by a supermarket where I shop, is for the sign to read ‘Up to five items’. The rule that I can recall being taught is that less is used of bulk, but not of countable nouns: ‘I do less entertaining than you because I have fewer friends’. One of the reasons for the blurriness of the distinction between less and fewer is the way more behaves. We use more with countable nouns and with non-countable ones: ‘I do more entertaining than you because I have more friends’. However, in the Middle English period, more was used of quantities that were not being counted and the now obsolete mo was used where numbers were specified: one spoke of ‘more butter’ and of ‘mo loaves’, and, were I to revive the distinction, I would say, ‘I do more entertaining than you because I have mo friends’. As mo disappeared, more took over both roles, and less copied this extension. But there were objections. The conventional distinction seems to begin in 1770 with Robert Baker’s Reflections on the English Language. Baker was different from most of his contemporary writers on language, informing his audience that he ‘quitted the School at fifteen’, knew no Greek and not much Latin, and owned no books. His Reflections contains some statements that will have sounded odd to his peers and continue to seem so now; for instance, ‘There are … Places, even in Prose, where for the sake of Sound, Whom may be used in the nominative’. But regarding less he has proved influential.

“Influential”? Clearly an understatement. According to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (here is an excerpt, and here is a scan of relevant pages), the “rule” which seems to be firmly entrenched in some heads can be traced to nobody else’s but Baker’s opinion.

I don’t know whether Hitchings actually meant that, but from the above quote it may appear that in good old times of mo, they were also consistently using fewer for countables; therefore, the usage of less for countables is a relatively recent trend. Nothing of the sort.

The OED shows that less has been used of countables since the time of King Alfred the Great — he used it that way in one of his own translations from Latin — more than a thousand years ago (in about 888). So essentially less has been used of countables in English for just about as long as there has been a written English language. After about 900 years Robert Baker opined that fewer might be more elegant and proper. Almost every usage writer since Baker has followed Baker’s lead, and generations of English teachers have swelled the chorus. The result seems to be a fairly large number of people who now believe less used of countables to be wrong, though its standardness is easily demonstrated.

Let’s look now in the OED itself. The entry on this particular meaning of less goes:

A smaller number of; fewer. <…> Freq. found but generally regarded as incorrect.

It is not elaborated why or by whom it is “generally regarded as incorrect” even though “freq. found”. And then it gives some quotations which leave this “incorrect” usage totally vindicated:

c888 Ælfred tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. xxxv. §5 [6] Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit gereccan magon.

1481 Caxton tr. Siege & Conqueste Jerusalem (1893) cl. 222 By cause he had so grete plente of men of hys owne countre, he called the fewer and lasse to counseyll of the noble men of the Cyte.

1580 J. Lyly Euphues (new ed.) To Rdrs. sig. Biv, I thinke there are fewe Vniuersities that haue lesse faults then Oxford, many that haue more.

1873 Nature 1 May 15/2 The determination of position in the given manifoldness is reduced to a determination of quantity and to a determination of position in a manifoldness of less dimensions.

1874 Rep. Brit. Assoc. Advancem. Sci. 1873 53 To return to the history of logarithmic tables to a less number of figures.

1904 Amer. Jrnl. Philol. 25 234 There might have been less barbed wire, less flaring flowers.

I often hear from those few who stand for fewer that no matter how many countable items is there, you still have to use fewer. Nonsense! “Not fewer than a million people” sounds weird. “Not less than a million people” sounds fine. Why? Because a million people is an awful lot, that’s why. When you deal with lots and lots of countables, you simply stop to count every single of them. That includes people.

Wait. How many people live in Finland? “Fewer than six million people” — hey, sounds not too bad, although I still prefer “less than six million people”. The reason is, fewer sounds all right with few items. If we are talking about few millions, we’re back in the familiar territory of countables. But now I spy a semantic difference here. Four or five millions is “fewer than six million people”, whereas 5,454,444 (population of Finland, 2013 estimate) is definitely “less than six million people”.

If few people say fewer, even fewer people say fewest. In the OED, both fewer and fewest are found under few — from which I conclude that they do not even deserve their own entries. Say no more.

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