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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

So I need to try hard to make this particular grammatical error far fewer often. I must write “less” on less occasions, and “fewer” fewer infrequently. It’s the fewest I can do. But realising precisely when to use “less” and when to use “fewer” remains fewer than obvious to me. Personally I blame my primary school teachers. If they’d wasted fewer time teaching me gorgeous italic handwriting (which is fewer than usefewer in this digital age) then I might have picked up more of the key rules of grammar instead. But one can’t improve one’s English unfewer one’s mistakes are identified. That’s why I’ve been much too carefewer on countfewer occasions in the past. Sorry, it’s all been mindfewer thoughtfewerness on my part. Bfewer you all for pointing out my linguistic reckfewerness. I recognise now that my writing has been fewer than perfect, and I’ve learnt my feweron. But don’t expect less mistakes overnight. Quite frankly I still couldn’t care fewer.

diamond geezer

19 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • dearieme

    “..have so many owed so much to so less.”

  • Gordon

    It’s actually very simple! “Fewer” qualifies countable things.
    “I smoke fewer cigarettes”
    ” I consume less tobacco”

  • Strictly, or so I believe, this is not so much a matter of grammer (meaning syntax), as both words are determiners. It is more a matter of semantic agreement between determiner and noun.

    That is unless you like the “sometime” definition of grammar from my newest dictionary: grammar, the branch of linguistics that deals with syntax and morphology, sometimes also phonology and semantics.

    So here we have, in the dictionary, less linguistic pedantry on the meaning of words than we do on the combination of words into a phrase where there is no difference in meaning (ie the phrase is unambiguous whether one uses “less” or “fewer”). The fewer times people make a fuss over this, the better.

    And the English language is a living beast; how can it change unless people do something new (and very likely against the rules) sufficiently often that the new thing becomes part of the rules?

    I vote for less. [That’s elision of the noun (I think). Now, how do you know whether I should be using fewer?]

    Best regards

  • Chris Harper


    To paraphrase, less is a continuous function, and fewer is a discontinuous function.

    And a further pedantic point – if you call me a pedant, you are conceding my point.

  • Mary Contrary

    Very funny.

    I still get infuriated by the “8 items or less” queue at supermarkets.

  • Chris Harper


    That sign is fully valid. By the time I get stuck into the chocolate I often go through with seven and a half items.

  • permanent expat

    That the difference isn’t absolutely clear to an educated person scares me………witfewer. By the bye, the following should still be true today, but sadly, is not:

    Words are the dress of thoughts; which should no more be presented in rags, tatters & dirt, than your person should.
    Chesterfield’s Letters.

  • Mary, then shop at Marks and Spencer, where (at least at my local branch) they have a “5 items or fewer” queue. Clearly they are catering to a more pedantic class of customer.

  • permanent expat

    I never knew that ‘correct’ meant ‘pedantic’ Well, I now see that 2+2=4 is, er……..pedantic.

  • Simon Jester

    Clearly they are catering to a more pedantic class of customer.

    And one who has fewer time to waste.

  • Millie Woods

    Forgive me Brian, for I know what I do and will press on regardless into mind-numbing grammatical technicalities whic I feel as a grammar guru is my god-given right for yea, verily and forsooth in the beginning was the word etc.
    So here’s the juicy lowdown.
    In linguistic speak we call it distribution. English nouns are divided into countables and uncountables. The countables take few as a qualifier and the uncountables less.
    Example it takes less time to get from Stowe to Leighterton in my Aston than it does in my ——(fill in the blank – but please no Ferraris).
    Confusion arises with nouns like time which can be both countable and uncountables. Example How many times have I told you that you take too much time styling your hair. See much and many follow the same rule as less and few.
    Simple really, Brian. You just have to go to grad school for a gezillion years to figure it all out.

  • permanent expat

    Sacre maquereux…………………………….Has Euan Gray returned in drag as Millie Woods?

  • As someone who suffered from a socialist education, it is very hard to ‘get it right’ even though I care about, and appreciate the importance of, correct English.

  • permanent expat

    Millie: For goodness’ sake get it right. ‘Times’ is plural & therefore countable. ‘Time’ isn’t. What’s so confusing about that?

    Scott: You have my sympathy but don’t fret; I had a ‘good’ education but can only count up to eleven 😉

  • Millie Woods

    Listen up Permanent Expat – don’t you tangle with my grammatical gravitas – I made the point that time can be both c and unc (countable and uncountable) although not to my knowledge so far, pc.
    As for Euan Gray if you’re going to suggest I’m someone in drag, please make it the eeevil Karl Rove. He’d make a good addition to my Attila the Hun was a Wuss Club.

  • permanent expat

    Millie: Don’t get your gravitas (singular or plural) in a twist. In my comparative ignorance I am unable to see a special problem, which you infer, with the confusion(?) of ‘time’ & ‘times’.
    There could be a problem though, and perhaps you will advise me, with the following:
    ‘I have few knickers that can get twisted’
    ‘I have many knickers etc,’
    ………or is ‘pairs of’ implicit in the first sentence, thus making it incorrect?…….. 😉

  • permanent expat

    Sorry, Millie. That didn’t come out the way it was meant either…….& I shan’t make the obvious correction…..but you know what I was getting to. That to which I was getting 😉

  • Millie Woods

    Permanent Expat, It pains me truly to see the multiple confusions about language that are out there. In my gravitasking persona – under the surname I use professionally – I put to rest some of these tiresome shibboleths – splitting infinitives and all that tosh.
    In the final unit of my grammar I deal with questions frequently asked by the grammatically fearful. One of them is about ending sentences with prepositional thingies. and here’s the lowdown exactly as it appears in the text.
    Prepositions in English have multiple functions. When they are used in certain ways they will often be found in sentence final position. For example when they are syntactic fill words; She’s someone you can rely on.; or as lexical elements; He smokes too much but he’s trying to cut down.; Or at the end of a direct question beginning with a question word; What’s he complaining about?In the last example the tendency to stress the question word as the first element in the sentence works against putting the preposition before it.
    Got any other deeply disturbing and/or troublesome questions about the glorious grammar of English. Just ask and an answer guaranteed to cause eye-glazing and mind-numbing will be sent your way.

  • permanent expat

    Millie: Thank you for your generous reply & your tacit forgiveness of my archaic & often flawed syntax. Brought up in the old school where Chesterfield’s letters to his son still carried some weight, I was even then aware that our language was a ‘living thing’ (as that super song goes) and that like ‘fashion’, of which it is a part, change comes from the bottom up and that grammar & syntax taught in school & academe must, of necessity, follow the juggernaut.
    Wishing you well is not a bad sentiment to end with. 😉