diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Making less mistakes
I must endeavour to make less grammatical mistakes.
I must endeavour to make less grammatical mistakes.
I must endeavour to make less grammatical mistakes.
I must endeavour to make less grammatical mistakes.
I must endeavour to make less fewer grammatical mistakes.
It's been drawn to my attention, by several pedants on several occasions, that I have a real problem with my use of the word "less". I use "less" far more frequently than I ought, in particular on occasions when I should be using the word "fewer" instead. I'll write something like "I got less visitors last Saturday than on any day since Christmas" and somebody will pop up in the comments box and chirrup "It's not less, it's fewer, for heaven's sake don't you know any better you ignorant bastard" or words to that effect. So I'd like to apologise, unreservedly and wholeheartedly, if I've offended your grammatical sensibilities either this week or in the past. But it's an easy mistake to make.

According to commenters BW, NiC, Chris (and indeed the unyielding rules of the English language) the difference between "less" and "fewer" comes down simply to whether something is countable or not:
Fewer is used with discrete countable items, less with non-countable amounts.
Fewer eggs, less milk. Fewer grains of salt, less salt.
It's that straight-forward. If I can count it then I should use "fewer", otherwise I should "less". And yes, I understand this perfectly. I even scored full marks in the online test that Chris suggested I have a go at, because counting is something that I'm good at. What I'm not so good at is spotting when to do the counting. My subconscious lets me get away with writing "less" every time because it sounds right, without me ever pausing to question whether "less" might perhaps be "fewer" instead. As with so many errors in so many walks of life, if you never notice that you're making a particular mistake then you're unlikely to be able to rectify it.

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.

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