Utilizing Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Contemporary American English, I have attempted to use usage data to come to a better understanding of the common rule regarding the use of “less” or “fewer” when describing nouns. This analysis is by no means exhaustive, but is meant to serve as a data point in the ongoing discussion over usage. Links to the data have been included where appropriate, though users will need Corpus access to see them. 250 terms were analyzed per search term in order to provide a large enough representative sample.
Rule: “Less” is to be used adjectivally only with nouns that that can’t be counted and “fewer” is to be used adjectivally only with nouns that can be counted.
Presentation of Findings
Search Terms & Results
All Categories /250
2. Less/Fewer [nn*]
All Categories /250
All Categories /250
All Categories /250
Significance of the Findings
Though I found the results interesting, this was often a frustrating search. Since I was researching “less” and “fewer” as adjectives, unless I searched for less/fewer with a noun collocate, it was difficult to find less/fewer used in this way. There was no way to limit my search results that wouldn’t narrow the search so much that I was answering my question with a presupposition. By limiting my result to less/fewer with immediately following noun collocates I would obtain the results I predicted. In other words, my hypothesis contained its own answer before I even began the research.
In order to rectify this situation, I attempted a two-pronged approach. First I simply looked through the corpus using the search term “less/fewer.” While this was bound to provide me with results that used “less” and “fewer” as adverbs, nouns and other functions it would provide me with some comparables after I poured through the material. (I will note here that I chose to only search a sampling of 50 uses per genre/category in the KWIC. I felt that this was a large enough sample to get a sense of the usage and large enough to ensure that “fewer,” which I suspected was rarer than “less” would appear in the KWIC of my first two search terms.)
I theorized that the result would be that I would find uses of “less” that were adjectivals, but that would also describe nouns that did not immediately follow and would often precede the adjectival, thereby broadening my search. In this way, I would ensure that I did not find (unless it actually existed) what I already expected to find within the corpus. This approach was successful. I felt that I found a nice cross-section of adjectival usage. I even found instances in the spoken category where the speaker would self correct, “It involves less — fewer benefits or more taxes.” It was an insight into the thought process of how speakers decide how and when to use less. Of the two occurrences I found, it was always a self-correction from “less” to “fewer” describing a countable noun, never vice versa. In this search, I discovered that 61% of the instances of “less” I found were used with countable nouns. This puts the lie to the” rule” about using “less” with only countable nouns. A preponderance of the results in my initial search term were actually supportive of an opposition to the “rule.”
However, the analysis was incomplete. I wanted to see how less/fewer with a following noun collocate would compare to the broader less/fewer search term. The less/fewer search term contained inapplicable uses of less/fewer to the question I am researching. By including a noun collocate in the search term, I ensured that most uses were adjectival, even if it would not include uses in this search term of collocates that precede the less/fewer adjective or which had an interruption between the adjectival and noun collocate. By comparing the two charts I would be able to discover how often “less” and “fewer” were used adjectivally to describe countable and noncountable nouns.
The second search term “less/fewer [nn*]” gave me a good insight. In this search, the number of noncountable nouns was usually greater than countable nouns for the adjectival “less.” I think it is here that the mythrule finds it origin. Still, a significant minority of “less” (28%) was used with countable nouns and in many cases, “fewer” either sounded pretentious in place of “less” or simply wouldn’t work. Unlike the previous search, the irrelevant functions of “less/fewer” were weeded out and I had fewer examples I had to place in the “not applicable” column of the table. By comparing the two results, I found that the “rule” often applies but that it is not concrete. The “rule” is more Jell-O than stone. It has elasticity to it.
This is also why I ran the “less” and “fewer” as freestanding individual words through the corpus search. I needed to know how many appearances there were of each word. The search for “less” was quite frustrating because there were so many instances were less was functioning as an adverb, preposition, noun, or adjective that modified another adjective to create a sense of degree, that countable and noncountable nouns were hidden in the roughage. However, this search did allow me to find nouns that did not immediately follow the adjectival “less.” I could go back to the beginning of sentences or find nouns that might be separated from less by a “than” or preposition, but which “less” still described. This search backed my initial findings and came close (with 59%) to the 61% of the first search term. This let me know that the first was not a fluke and that “less” is used on a nearly equal basis for countable or noncountable nouns.
The “fewer” search term was a wash. I had earlier determined that the mythrule likely holds true in the case of this word. This was born out by a more general search without a noun collocate. 100% of the time, “fewer” referred to a noun. Also surprising was the fact that in all cases, when the noun actually appeared in the text, it was always a plural –s form of the word. Even noncountable nouns became countable when made plural and so “fewer” became appropriate. “Sleep seems basic. We process memories while dead to the world, throwing out some and storing away many fewer for later use.” This even holds true when the described noun is understood or fewer describes itself, as it was in a very few cases like, “Few know the location of the ancient and fabled valei fewer still have heard of these strange flora.” I think there is a potential for refinement of the mythrule that would help alleviate the confusion between countable and noncountable nouns if the grammarian were to look at the form of the noun rather than its definition.
People, those that care about grammar anyway, get a bugbear about the proper use of “less” vs. “fewer.” A rule was developed. This rule was poorly developed. I wanted to research just how poorly and if refinements could be made to the mythrule rather than throwing it all away. People do find rules helpful in writing, at least as they get their feet wet with writing, and I know that young children love the concrete feel of a rule, of doing something the “right way.” Could I give them a descriptive guide that walks and talks like a rule but in actually reflects usage? This is what I set out to discover.
I want to makes some general observations here. First is that though the mythrule appears to be correct in all cases for the use of “fewer” some refinements to the rule could be made that take into account the form of the noun described as well in spite of its countable or noncountable type. Second, the “less” portion of the mythrule needs to be changed. “Less” can be used with either countable or noncountable nouns. There is also potential for refining the mythrule to account for the fact that when combined with “than” as in “less than” it usually has a number (text or numerals) immediately following. The only exception is when “less than” is not idiomatic, but two separate words that are proximal in the sentence but are not related in function. Finally, less is most often used adverbially to describe an adjective. This function was the bulk of my “not applicable” results. Though the mythrule only addresses the adjectival function, it was often easy for me to ascribe an adjectival function to the word when in fact it was describing an adjective (to lessen its degree) and was therefore an adverb. But, since the adjectives being described could, to a casual user, be thought nouns the guideline should include a way to weed out such instances.
Ultimately, my broad searches helped me find that fewer is often used to describe nouns, but that less is a much broader word and that its function as adjectival is actually one of its less common uses. It was much more likely to be an adverb of degree describing an adjective. I think this is partly why Schuster claims that choosing less or fewer doesn’t really matter. However, while in usage fewer can replace “less” the opposite does not seem to be standard practice by English writers and speakers and more poignantly and when the noun holds and –s form, fewer is to be preferred.
Advice to Students and Writers
My advice to students and writers is threefold. First, when it comes to “fewer” as an adjectival — believe the rule. “Fewer” should be used with nouns that can be counted only. To recognize a countable noun, don’t think about the noun’s meaning, but focus on its form. If the noun has an –s form or is an irregular plural (e.g. “benefits,” “books,” “men” or “women”) then “fewer” is to be preferred, especially in written English. And be aware that noncountable nouns become countable when an –s is added to the base or an irregular plural is used. The “fewer” rule is to be followed.
Second, when it comes to using “less” — ignore the rule. It has been falsely tied to the correct rule of “fewer.” “Less” is a much more versatile word. “Less” works equally well as an adjectival for any noun, countable or not. In writing it is preferred over “fewer”, especially when the writer wants to avoid pedantry or pretension. In fact, should be used in dialogue or when spoken no matter the situation as the spoken tendency is to use “less” over “fewer” except for when the speaker is trying to highlight their intelligence or authority. In the case of “less,” just ignore the rule and use it adjectivally however you like.
Finally, remember that “less” is much more likely to be used in some other way than adjectivally. It is often an adverb, preposition or even a noun. On the other hand, “fewer,” in my research, is never used as anything but an adjective. Therefore, when you have a countable noun and are in doubt, use “fewer” to describe the amount. You might sound more pretentious, but you will always be correct. If precision does not matter to you and “less” still conveys your meaning, you can use it freely with countable or noncountable nouns.