If less is more, then what is fewer?
I’m sure we’ve all met that one guy (or girl) who rants and raves about how it should be ’10 items or fewer’ on the supermarket checkout signs, not ’10 items or less’. Technically, they’re right, but does that mean that they need to get on their soap boxes about it?
Admittedly, I’m fairly picky about ‘correct’ usage in most cases, but this is one of the few that I’m not so worried about.
According to the official rules (and the ranters), “fewer” should be used when talking about countable nouns (pencils, light bulbs, pandas), and “less” should be used with uncountable nouns (rice, water, space). We have fewer bottles of milk, but less milk. The opposite of both, though, is “more”. Why the difference?
The general trend is for “less” to be used for both countable and uncountable nouns. It is virtually unheard of (I’m not saying nobody’s ever done it, but I doubt they have) for people to use “fewer” when they should be using “less”. Try saying “I have fewer food than I did yesterday”, and see how many people think you’re weird.
For some reason, I think “one fewer” often sounds unnatural (e.g. “one fewer car on the road”).
So why not just accept this gradual linguistic change? There’s only one word for “more”, so why not the same for “less”? Let’s worry more about the things we have less of (clean air, money, quality Hollywood films) rather than which words we’re going to use to talk about them.