Thursday, October 14, 2010

Some More About Less

Another hockey season is underway, and here in Vancouver it means another season of speculation about how many games Canucks' workhorse goalie Roberto Luongo should work.  According to a "Hot Issue" sidebar in today's Province, this is once again a hot issue, with reporter Ben Kuzma noting:
Less games to keep Luongo healthier makes sense, but so does getting the starter off to a better start.
Here we come upon that pet bugaboo of grocery store express line grammarians everywhere: the distinction between fewer and less. That "10 items or less" sign grates on them (us) because, as we all know, fewer is the word to use when it comes to individual units, and less is the way to go when describing abstractions or  quantities that are not discretely countable. If you have fewer grains of sand, in other words, you have less sand.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. I remember once seeing a sticker on a bike in the West End that read "One Less Car," and being momentarily dumbstruck--not just by the cyclist's peevish self-righteousness, but by the phrasing. It seemed to violate the "fewer-describes-discrete-units" rule and yet it sounded right.

That's because it is. I have June Casagrande and her book Mortal Syntax to thank for clearing up the confusion. She explains that while the formula I have outlined above...
...will work just fine nine out of ten will let you down hard when you must choose between "one less item" and "one fewer item."
She goes on to point out that
Here's your best guideline, as paraphrased from Garner's Modern American Usage: Use "fewer" for plural things. Use "less" for singular things. That way, it's clear that, yes, the express lane sign should read "ten items or fewer," but you also get it right when you take a single item out of your cart and end up with "one less item."
So now I can say with confidence that I would be happy if I read one less article about how Roberto Luongo should play fewer games.