This is a photo of the Express Lane at Whole Foods. In general, I won’t shop there because I believe that a really expensive supermarket should at least pay its people well, and it doesn’t. Also: John Mackey. But I was in a rush and I needed a bottle of really expensive beer. And so I made my way to the Express Lane and that’s where I was confronted with the less vs fewer question.
For those of you who are not into grammar, there has been a raging debate among pedants about less vs fewer. Well, it’s not exactly a debate, because all the pedants are on the same side. You will set them off if you say, as the sign above might, “15 items or less.” You see, “fewer” is for countable things and “less” is for non-countable things.
So you might have fewer bottles of water, but you would have less water. But would you be confused if someone ran up to you during a fair and said, “A guy just grabbed a box of bottled water! Now I have less bottles of water!”? No, you wouldn’t. And you wouldn’t be confused if someone said they had fewer water, even if it sounded really weird.
Pedant at the Checkout
So there’s this guy in front of me, who is one of these blow-dried health nuts — a combination of Gordon Gekko and Johnny Appleseed. And he looks up at the sign and says to the clerk, “I love it when they get the grammar right.” The clerk is at first confused and then says, “Oh, fewer! Yeah, I’m kind of a grammar guy myself.” I don’t mind the clerk; he’s just doing his job. But the customer! It took all my powers of restraint to not start shouting. It’d be something like this:
The truth is the less vs fewer question is a made up one. The word “less” dates back to before the 12th century. It was at least 600 years later that someone decided that what really distinguished a learned person from a prol was how they used two identical words.
Less vs Fewer Is Pointless
This kind of stuff enrages me all the more now that I do so much editing. Because this kind of rubbish just gets in the way of work. Even a good writer needs a tremendous amount of help from their editor. There just isn’t time to worry about such trivialities. I’m far more concerned about than vs then than I am less vs fewer. At least those first two words have very different meanings.
Worrying about less vs fewer is just foolish. Or fatuous. Or silly. Oh my God! What is the exact right word to describe this?! I’m sure there are people buying eggplants in Whole Foods right now who won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.