Less is More (Or Something Like That)

Those of us of a certain age, were brought up believing that fewer must be used for things you can count the number of, and less applies to an amount of stuff that you can’t count, as in: ‘In this current heatwave, there is less water in the reservoirs, and fewer bottles of water in the shops.’ 

Many of us have taken a pedantic, not to say smug, pleasure in pointing out the sloppy thinking behind those signs in supermarkets above the quick service lanes for those with ‘ten items or less.’ (It’s FEWER, you morons – don’t schools teach kids anything, these days?!!)

But it is the pedants who are wrong. The interchangeability of less and fewer goes back over a thousand years, and there are several examples in the Oxford English Dictionary to prove it. Apparently the less/fewer rule was an invention of a grammarian at the end of the eighteenth century who clearly had nothing better to do. After all we use more as the opposite of both less and fewer – less water : more water. Fewer bottles : more bottles.

Similar arguments about declining standards are put forward in regard to amount and number in articles. There have been letters to the papers recently about the inappropriate use of amount‘the record amount of people attending the recent football match between the Lionesses and Germany.’ Surely, these indignant letter writers opine, anyone with any education knows it should be number, as the crowd is countable. (It is the amount of new enthusiasm for the women’s game that is not). That is, number, like fewer, relates to countable items; amount, like less, to the non-countable.

Again, the OED does not support the critics. People have been using amount and number interchangeably in many situations for centuries. There is no actual rule to say you shouldn’t. It is a matter of personal preference, and what sounds right to you – I will still write about collecting a number of apples from my neighbour’s tree, and tut-tut about the amount of rotting fruit they leave on their lawn. But such disapproval is uncharitable. Likewise it is best to keep to myself any opinion of anyone who chooses to gather an amount of apples in similar circumstances.

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