Less vs Fewer: Pedantry at the Grocery Store

Express Lane: Less vs Fewer

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:

Realy?! You think that’s grammar? And how is it you know that it should be “fewer” and not “less”? It’s because your 7th grade teacher brought up the less vs fewer controversy to you. And now, you go around the world trying to make Mrs. Grammar Pedant proud of you! Can you give me one good reason why “less” is inferior to “fewer” in this case? No you can’t! It’s just a rule you learned and you somehow never learned that grammar and spelling are descriptive and not proscriptive.

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.

Vacuous maybe?




13 thoughts on “Less vs Fewer: Pedantry at the Grocery Store

  1. Hilarious actually. Because you are still in a bad mood when you write this and this is how it is expressed. By ranting about some blow dry health nut. *laughs*

    • It’s just… I love language and I hate it when people use it as a sport. He deserved to be slapped.

  2. Well, it makes sense to me because I’m a mathematician, and the difference between continuous and discrete data can be kind of important. Also, my OCD causes me to physically twitch when I hear certain grammatical constructions. This one is not too bad; one of the worst is “ATM Machine.”

    • Some years ago, to increase their fan base, the sports team “Anaheim Angels” sought to change their name to “Los Angeles Angels.” Not move the team; they can’t, it’s in the stadium lease they agreed to in return for Anaheim public money. And it turned out the lease also bound them to keep “Anaheim” in the team name. So instead they settled on “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.”

      Not only is the name ridiculous (like saying “Jersey City Yankees of New York”), but also, naturally, it translates to “The Angels Angels of Anaheim.”

    • I understand. It’s like NT technology. What does NT stand for? New Technology! (At least when Windows first released it.) I run into this all the time. But you’ve got to let it go. ATM is no longer an acronym. This is the nature — And the beauty! — of language. I still struggle with data as a singular. At my day job, I wrote the style guide. It says “data” is singular. I hate that! But that’s the way people talk and write. And so that’s the right way to talk and write. And that’s why I put that in the style guide even though I hate it.

  3. The blow-dry health nut guy would make an awesome character for a short story. Thanks for the laugh! I especially enjoyed your imaginary rant. I have lots of those. Most of the time, I manage to refrain from actually verbalizing them, although I did have a recent outburst at a very proper committee meeting. (After a brief, shocked silence, everyone snapped out of their haze and decided I was right.)

    • Was it over grammar?! That would be great!

      Feel free to use the blow-dry health nut guy. I think I realized that I am not a narrative writer. What I think is really for the stage. So when I write narrative stuff, I pull back; it isn’t me in the way that “Post-Postmodern Comedy Hour” or “Burned” are. So I’m going back to that. I have a pile of scripts. I have a short play about a dog complaining about MP3 encoding. I don’t think of myself as unique, but I’ve got to admit: who but me would do that kind of thing?

  4. I count myself either alongside or within the pedant crowd on this particular issue. I’d comment farther, but… ;)

      • Yes, I noticed that too and wasn’t sure if it was meant as a joke. The farther vs further issue is interesting in that it is almost exactly the same as less vs fewer, but fewer people care about it. For some reason, it is just an American thing. But to my ear, father indicates physical distance. “He went father in school” just sounds wrong to me. But that doesn’t make it wrong. It does, however, highlight the ridiculousness of getting worked up about such things.

        (Obviously, I get worked up about people getting worked up. And that’s fine. Because it’s me.)

    • I’m probably going to write another article about it, because I’ve noticed something else wrong with it. Ending that declaration with a weak syllable sounds horrible and is a far greater sin than the breaking of an arbitrary rule.

      But everyone is allowed to be a pedant. They should just be so quickly or among friends. There are things that drive me crazy. But I don’t go around feeling superior because I have a particular opinion about grammar. And the real issue is whether a specific piece of writing works or not. But there is no “rule” for that. So people don’t stand in checkout lines pontificating about that because they aren’t secure enough, having never had Mrs Grammar Pedant tell them that particular piece of writing was bad.

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