10 items or fewer, dammit!

The cool thing about English is that no matter how well you think you know it, there’s always something more you can learn. Every so often, I discover that I had been making a mistake. In this case, it involved the words less and fewer.

I considered myself reasonably well educated when it comes to these words. I knew that fewer dealt with countable nouns, like ducks and cupcakes. (“I have fewer cupcakes, but she has fewer ducks.” Or something.) And I knew that less dealt with uncountable nouns (or mass nouns), like body fat and waterfowl noise. (“Consequently, I have less body fat, but she has less waterfowl noise.” Who writes these examples?) The classic misstep is made by supermarkets everywhere, where the sign for the express checkout reads “ten items or less.” (Except at Whole Foods, who gets it right.)

Of course, some countable nouns still take less because they’re really things you measure instead of count, like money and time. (“Less than ten minutes,” or “less than five bucks.”)

But where I went off the rails was with the phrase one fewer. I figured that if the noun was countable, then fewer was the way to go. (“I have one fewer duck than she has.”) Turns out, I was wrong. The proper phrase is one less. The logical argument is that one thing can’t really be counted. But the real reason is that no one says “one fewer.” Well, almost no one. I did.

Until I looked it up.

The important thing, if you care about writing well, is that you continually try to improve by looking up things instead of just guessing. (I had to double-check that I didn’t mean continuously; I didn’t. I also double-checked the hyphen in double-check. Tough sentence.)

Update A couple of good posts on the same topic can be found at Jan Freeman’s Throw Grammar from the Train and Danny Dagan’s That Danny.

(Image courtesy of The IBD Blog.)