Just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger
Right Said Fred
Did that last line jar? Did it cause you to narrow your eyes, as it doesn't belong there? As someone who was taught certain rigid rules of grammar as a child, I often come across similar intruders in these less formal times.
While listening to a discussion on the radio recently about Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter, the presenter stated that he, the presenter that is, probably has less followers on that platform than most people. I was aghast, nay, outraged.
The misused word assaulted my ears like a bum note in Moonlight Sonata, it was a nettle in a bed of daffodils, a stranger in a foreign land. It was all I could do to stop myself writing a letter of complaint to the BBC.
Of course, I jest. I'm too long in the tooth to let such trivialities get me down, but I have to admit that on hearing the word less used when the correct choice would be fewer, it does jar on the ear. This is probably because I was shown the difference between the two words at a young age and, well, the child is father to the man.
Less and fewer
These days, in informal language, the words less and fewer mean pretty much the same thing. But that's not the case if you want to be grammatically correct, as each has its own purpose. To clarify the matter let us look down the wrong end of the telescope at my own distant childhood.
In those days, children in what were then called junior schools sat the so-called eleven-plus exam. This was a comprehensive examination of a pupil's educational development at age eleven, via questions relating to language and mathematics. A child's performance in that test would determine his or her future; whether the gates of a secondary school, or a grammar school would open up.
It was in the build up to taking that test that my classmates and I were shown, via Mrs McCabe, an excellent educator who sadly passed on a few years ago, the difference between fewer and less, because a question relating to that particular distinction might well have popped up in the exam.
Let us join an imaginary teacher, Mr Chips, as he explains that difference to his class of eleven-year-old pupils. One example, which he chalks on the board, relates to a builder who got his calculations wrong.
He should have ordered less sand and fewer bricks.
As the teacher demonstrates the distinction, he circles the words, telling his charges, "If we are talking about something made up of individual parts, i.e, a whole whose parts can be counted, like bricks, sweets or people, then we use the word fewer. If we are dealing with a single mass, which can't be counted, like sand, water or time, then we use less."
Of course, every class has its smart alec, and sure enough, little Alexander Smart at the back raises his hand.
"Please, Sir," he says, "technically it is possible to count the grains of sand in a bag, so shouldn't it be fewer sands?"
The teacher explains that we don't go down to the builders' yard to ask for twelve million grains of sand, please. Instead, we ask for that commodity by weight, or by the bag.
While the teacher accepts that Mr Smart raises a valid point, he objects to the smugness of its delivery, and he awards the boy a hundred lines that might help him get a better handle on the difference:
I shall make fewer frivolous interjections, and thus waste less of my teacher's time.
But it is a fact that in those days a child's understanding of the difference between fewer and less, or a lack thereof, could determine a his or her future.
A hopeful pupil
Imagine Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, but instead of a saint, Peter is a headmaster, and the gates do not allow access to Heaven, but rather the local grammar school. A hopeful pupil wanders up to the gatekeeper and says, "Please, Sir, I'd like to go to grammar school."
"Very well," says Peter, "but first, you must answer me this. If a hungry fruit bat got into your local greengrocery, and gobbled up some stock, would the proprietor be left with fewer or less bananas?"
The boy strokes his chin as he ponders, until finally, he speaks. "Why, surely it's less," he says. Peter raises an arm and points away from the gates.
"The secondary modern is that way," he says.
Whatever your views on the grammar school system, that's how stark it was; a child's educational future rested upon the results of that exam (for what it's worth, I passed).
In the early days of BBC radio, protocol was such that a presenter had to wear a dinner jacket to read the news, even though no-one would see him. And if anyone dared split an infinitive on-air, the ensuing mailbag would bulge with complaints. Contrast that with the aforementioned presenter, who is making a decent living, being paid for his ability to communicate across the airwaves, and yet who is clearly unaware that a difference between fewer and less even exists.
While it is common to hear someone use less, when the correct term is fewer, the same cannot be said for the opposite. It would be a rare thing indeed for someone to use fewer, where less is called for. In fact, it looks downright odd, as can be seen by these examples:
I couldn't care fewer about politics.
I don't think any fewer of you for it.
And, of course, a song by Kaiser Chiefs would not have scanned so well as Everyday I Love You Fewer and Fewer.
But there's more.
Number and amount
The rules for number and amount are the same as for fewer and less. The former applies to things that can be counted, while the latter refers to mass. Here are some examples:
These days, a great number of people shop online.
The amount of hypocrisy on display was nauseating.
Jenny was one of a number of dissatisfied customers.
No amount of badgering could make him change his mind.
The amount of food available wasn't enough for the number of people in the lifeboat.
And again, misplacement of those words is a one-sided affair, where amount is used instead of number. It would be rare to hear someone say, "I couldn't believe the number of snow that fell yesterday."
While ignorance of proper use of the word less might not be a barrier to a career as a BBC radio presenter these days, it could be fingernails down the blackboard to those viewing job applications or submitted written work. It is not a difficult rule to grasp, but certainly one worth learning and adhering to.
(Originally published in Medium)