B.B. Boudreau

Novelist | Singer

Less or Fewer?

I love the colloquialisms of speech. The color and visual create a mind-freeing image of a person, making audio often much more exciting than seeing a face. I don’t even mind the use of the “aks” instead of ask. It’s not even a mispronunciation anymore. It’s a word learned from the environment of the speaker.
Then there’s the charm of that delightful shortcut of the conditional perfect, as in “I coulda went,” or “I should’ve drove to his house.” I know it’s wrong, but somehow, it just feels colloquial. I usually don’t get really picky about language or writing vernacular, but there’s one thing that I just can’t get beyond. And that is the confusion and misuse of the words “fewer” and “less.”
Look it up if you’re a word geek like me. The usage is very clear. “Fewer” denotes countable objects, as in “I have fewer pigs than my next door neighbor.” Less, however, describes uncountable quantities, such as “he drank less milk than his friend,” or “he has less hair than he did last year.” Less rain, but fewer inches of rain.
Pretty easy, right? And I’m hoping that we all know the rules. Or do we? I’m not sure when I hear news casters, professors, radio announcers, in other words, people who should know better say things like, “less Americans are traveling this year,” or “we see less airplanes in the air during the COVID crisis.”
Really??? I mean, these are educated, articulate people, and every time they say something like that, I cringe and correct them out loud. And the funny thing is that we are short shrifting the word “fewer.” Less actually gets more use. Fewer gets less. Get it?
OK, I realize it’s an obsession for me, because evidently not many people seem to notice how often is used incorrectly. I tell myself to get over it and just move forward. It’s impossible to correct people. Even if it’s grammatically incorrect, you can’t correct anyone in public, as it’s considered to be rude. So I’m working on acceptance. I’m learning to accept certain quirky usages, and I’m almost willing to give up my tirade against it. Almost.

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