When Less Is Fewer

less

In anticipation of the Red Sox-Rays playoff series, the following sentence appeared in articles on multiple online sports pages: “The Rays are an amazing 82-18 when they allow four runs or less.”

It should be “four runs or fewer.”

Less is used with mass nouns – things we can’t count individually – while fewer is correct when the items can be counted:

Less offense, fewer runs;

Less rain, fewer umbrellas;

Less ink, fewer words.

You know the “10 Items or Less” line at Stop & Shop? It should be “10 Items or Fewer” because you can count the fifteen items in my basket. Back in 2008, a British grocery chain, in a display of extraordinary linguistic sensitivity, sidestepped the issue by changing its signs to read “Up to 10 Items.” Some questioned if that meant “ten items and no more” or “nine items or fewer.” It’s enough to make you shoplift.

This is English, so there are exceptions. Time, money, and distance words turn the rule on its head: “We’ll arrive in less than five hours,” “I have less than $10 in my pocket,” and “I was driving less than 120 miles an hour, officer – what’s the problem?”

The Rays are an amazing 82-18 when they allow four runs or fewer. Let’s hope the Sox score five or more today – up to 10, even.

3 Comments

I remember standing in the “express” line at a grocery store with high-school-aged Malcolm. He said “look, that should say fewer, right?” I knew at that point everything was going to be just fine…

Less sports talk, fewer mistakes. (Well, they do seem to be the biggest offenders, but maybe that’s what makes it so “colorful.”) The gripe of the ages just got nailed by another John Walsh copy blog. Well said. Less food, fewer calories (why isn’t the singular form spelled calory?) Carry on. . .

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