Fewer Mistakes = Less Confusion


The media is starting to sound like a bunch of four year olds. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an alarming increase in the number of times people use the word “less” when what they mean is “fewer.” In conversation, in articles, and even recently, in marketing slogans. It sounds ridiculous, especially coming from the mouths of educated CBC radio personalities who speak for a living.

It’s simple: if you can count the thing you’re referring to, you use “fewer.” Otherwise, you use “less.”

A good example is that if you have fewer dollars than your friend, you have less money. You may be thinking, “Huh? I can count my money!” Actually, you can’t. You can have 20 dollars, but not 20 money. “Less dollars” sounds as silly as “fewer money,” but these mistakes are being made daily by radio and television personalities. Which means, in many cases, that their writers are making them, too.

To see if you’re getting it, try to figure out which of the following nouns should be preceded by fewer, and which by less:

a) wombats
b) time
c) sheep
d) patients
e) patience

The correct answers are, of course, a) fewer, b) less, c) fewer, d) fewer, and e) 42. (E was a trick question about the meaning of life.)

This may seem like a trivial thing to be upset about; sure, young people use a lot of slang and don’t pay close attention to their communication, but when it’s important, they can rely on their solid command of the language, right?

Wrong. Talk to any English teacher. Few North American students are able to string together a single cogent essay page. What we get instead is a mash-up of incorrectly used five-dollar words.

This feigned literacy has become the norm, and we should be taking the problem more seriously. It has pervaded all levels of business and government, to the shame and heartache of millions.

Don’t believe me? Two words: George Bush. And on that topic, here’s a bonus application of today’s lesson:

“Less Bush means fewer wars, which results in fewer deaths, and less sorrow.” (See how easy it is?)

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