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less and fewer
Posted: 20 September 2017 09:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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I may be a simple man, but it all seems relatively clear to me. Whatever we were taught in school and home is probably what we will practice most of our lives. Right or wrong, some word usage is drilled into our delicate young brains when we are too young to debate the right or wrong of it. We usually accept the usage and practice it.

I know there are very often exceptions to the rules of language usage, but some things just feel right to each individual. Those things are harder to change as time passes. They are usually familiar usages: words or phrasing we use daily, and usually do not want to change.

But, if we find out that there are exceptions later, we should be open to those. I think “15 items or less” at the grocery store is totally acceptable, because it’s about a lessor quantity, and not a specific number.

I am open to change, although it gets harder each year.

[ Edited: 20 September 2017 09:06 PM by Eyehawk ]
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Posted: 21 September 2017 04:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I see less running on the court.

I see fewer running on the court.

The problem with the second sentence is not one of usage, but one of clarity. It is a grammatically correct clause.

Both less and few are determiners, and when they appear without an accompanying noun, one must make clear what noun they implicitly refer to. Less is a determiner that can be used with both count and non-count nouns, but few can only be used with count nouns. Thus when we see less running on the court, devoid of any other context, we assume that it is the amount of running that has decreased—running is what is mentioned, therefore that is what is being determined. But when we see fewer running on the court, devoid of other context, we don’t know what noun fewer determines, hence we rebel against that construction. If one were to write, More people have joined the tennis club, but I see fewer running on the court, then the meaning is made clear by the additional context, and the clause sounds perfectly fine to the native speaker’s ears.

Conversely, if one were to use less to refer to people, one would need to write less people running on the court, to make it clear it is people and not running that is being determined.

Whatever we were taught in school and home is probably what we will practice most of our lives. Right or wrong, some word usage is drilled into our delicate young brains when we are too young to debate the right or wrong of it. We usually accept the usage and practice it.

Probably not. If you record yourself speaking in unguarded moments, I pretty much guarantee you will find yourself using less with count nouns. It’s only when you consciously think about your grammar that you apply the “rule.” The “rule” is not and never has been an accurate description of English usage.

[ Edited: 21 September 2017 05:10 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 21 September 2017 06:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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I can’t imagine myself or anyone I know saying the second; normal English phrasing would be “I see fewer people running on the court.”

Why? There seems to be some sort of implied “rule” for “normal English phrasing” at work here.

Why?  Because I can’t imagine myself or anyone I know saying “I see fewer running on the court,” and because it seems to me that my version is what people actually would say.  Do you disagree?

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Posted: 21 September 2017 09:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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But when we see fewer running on the court, devoid of other context, we don’t know what noun fewer determines…

I see fewer running on the court, is an elliptical construction; it is understood what noun fewer determines. We have to assume that the reference to a court implies an enclosed area for some type of ball game: tennis, basketball, squash etc..

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Posted: 21 September 2017 10:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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OK, so here’s context:

The boys were told to walk, not run, on the road.

followed by either of these sentences:

(a) I now see fewer running on the road.

or

(b) I now see less running on the road.

What do (a) and (b) mean? Is there a difference?

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Posted: 22 September 2017 02:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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ElizaD - 21 September 2017 10:27 PM

OK, so here’s context:

The boys were told to walk, not run, on the road.

followed by either of these sentences:

(a) I now see fewer running on the road.

or

(b) I now see less running on the road.

What do (a) and (b) mean? Is there a difference?

Answer in 25 words or less.

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Posted: 22 September 2017 04:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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ElizaD - 21 September 2017 10:27 PM

OK, so here’s context:

The boys were told to walk, not run, on the road.

followed by either of these sentences:

(a) I now see fewer running on the road.

or

(b) I now see less running on the road.

What do (a) and (b) mean? Is there a difference?

I’ll play.  If (a), the writer is ignoring the boys, who, in turn, are ignoring what they were told.  Or the writer of (a) has a bit of a problem with idiomatic English.  If the writer were commenting on the contextual, and obedient (hah!), boys, she would have written (b).  All of which does nothing to support the opening post’s clarion call for adherence to some iron-clad rule that is but a stylistic preference, one I share.  Let’s codify a new, more focused rule:  Don’t use ‘fewer’ to modify uncountable gerunds, unless the context
allows its use. Continue to use ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ according to your whim when modifying countable nouns. 
Examples:
(a) Now that the Baron Harkonnen wannabe has resigned, I see less bloviating on twitter.
(b) Now that the Baron Harkonnnen wannabe has resigned, and his retinue has followed him into disgrace and exile,
I see fewer bloviating on twitter.*

* One might substitute less for fewer in (b), but the meaning would become ambiguous.

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Posted: 22 September 2017 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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I did not realize I was going to open such a tasty can of worms with my post. It’s like being in a fun maze. Thanks, all.

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Posted: 22 September 2017 08:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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I’ll play.  If (a), the writer is ignoring the boys, who, in turn, are ignoring what they were told.  Or the writer of (a) has a bit of a problem with idiomatic English.  If the writer were commenting on the contextual, and obedient (hah!), boys, she would have written (b).  All of which does nothing to support the opening post’s clarion call for adherence to some iron-clad rule that is but a stylistic preference, one I share.  Let’s codify a new, more focused rule:  Don’t use ‘fewer’ to modify uncountable gerunds, unless the context
allows its use. Continue to use ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ according to your whim when modifying countable nouns. 
Examples:
(a) Now that the Baron Harkonnen wannabe has resigned, I see less bloviating on twitter.
(b) Now that the Baron Harkonnnen wannabe has resigned, and his retinue has followed him into disgrace and exile,
I see fewer bloviating on twitter.*

* One might substitute less for fewer in (b), but the meaning would become ambiguous.

Very well articulated, I agree.

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Posted: 24 September 2017 02:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Seems to me that any argument in favour of the idea that using fewer instead of less will cause confusion can be countered by point out that we only use one word, more, to represent “greater in number” and “greater in amount”. We get on just fine with “more”, and we can get on just fine with “less”.

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Posted: 24 September 2017 02:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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If I may offer another example:

A) If elected I promise less taxes.

B) If elected I promise fewer taxes.

In A) the number of different taxes could increase.  I.e., I could add a breathing tax and a thumb-twiddling tax, but the total amount of money you pay in taxes would decrease.  In B) the amount you pay in tax could increase but the number of different taxes would decrease. I.e., I could revoke the head-scratching tax and the mismatched clothes tax but increase all the tax rates to more than make up for the absence of the two taxes I revoked.

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Posted: 24 September 2017 12:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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I would say “less taxation” with “fewer taxes”, but only because I’m a pedant who was taught the difference, can’t help myself and feel slightly superior when I read a sentence where I would have substituted “fewer"*.  That aside, because of the increase in saying “less” where “fewer” would have been the pedant’s choice, I can see the use of “fewer” dwindling in future. “More” doesn’t cause the same confusion.

*irony

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Posted: 24 September 2017 11:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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I’ve just heard an English-speaking BBC Breakfast presenter say, “We need to get much more students [to do whatever}.” “Much” in this context is generally used to quantify the singular, but if enough people apply it to the plural, “many” could be going the same way as “fewer”.

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Posted: 25 September 2017 08:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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I’ve just heard an English-speaking BBC Breakfast presenter say, “We need to get much more students [to do whatever}.” “Much” in this context is generally used to quantify the singular, but if enough people apply it to the plural, “many” could be going the same way as “fewer”.

I hope your prognostication is not too imminent. It would grate on my ears if someone were to say: How much brothers do you have, conversely, How many money do you have, would be just as irritating. Personally, it’s a matter of esthetics.

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