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Less or fewer

I regret having to take issue with @PreciseEdit, but I’m pretty sure that this piece of advice on Twtter today is misguided:

Wrong: We have LESS than 3 gallons remaining. Right: We have FEWER than 3 gallons remaining.

You can see the logic: We use less for a mass noun, fewer for a count noun, and we are enumerating gallons here.

But that distinction between mass noun and count noun can be a little fluid. I think that when we talk in this context, we are not talking about three gallons as three units, but three gallons as a quantity, that is, a mass. So we’d say that there is less than three gallons remaining in the tank, just as we would say in the kitchen that we have less than three pounds of flour for this recipe.

If @PreciseEdit had used carrots or pieces of your mother’s stemware instead of gallons, all would have been well.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:32 PM | | Comments (14)


Yeah, kind of an odd example to have chosen. Perhaps the intended meaning was gallons as in gallon-size containers of milk, as opposed to gallons as in the unit of measurement?

If gallons were indivisible chunks, fewer could be used, but since gallons are fluid, fewer is inappropriate. So is "fewer miles to go" for essentially the same reason.

The fewer/less distinction is dubious anyway, but that's a gallon drum of worms.

Many are called, but few are chosen, and I hear less and less about that. In my book, you are right about the example you've given. The two words are not comparable; context really is everything. If, for example, you insist prescriptively that few can only be used for numeration, how do you square an exchange like: Q. "How far it it to Baltimore from here? " A. "Just a few miles." I could give myriad examples, but I won't. I do think that the express lane at the supermarket with a sign stipulating, "Fewer than 12 items" does make sense. But I'm less sure even about that, although if I take a few minutes, I might clear it up.

I'm guessing they deliberately chose an example involving a unit (gallon) applied to something that otherwise doesn't exist in discrete chunks (a liquid), in order to argue that even in such cases, fewer is appropriate, because gallon is a countable noun. However I'm with you on is one - it's a grey area. What if each gallon of liquid is in a separate one-gallon container? What if it's frozen? It's all about context.

We could clear this all up if only we knew whether the milk is in three individual gallon containers, or in a three-gallon vat. LOL

Or to multiply contingencies (always fun), we could say we have three one-gallon containers, but one of them is half empty.

Didn't Language Log clear this up in their "Perscriptivist Poppycock" series? The use of "few" and "less" is asymetrical.

"Few" is used for countable items, while "less" is used for both countable and measurable nouns. They cite Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.

Well-trodden ground:

Also Ben Zimmer at OUPblog:

And Stan Carey:

And Wendalyn Nichols:

Ten dollars are a lot of money?

Sometimes countable nouns are understood to come in a lot.

Now I'm utterly flummoxed. Or maybe I'm missing something obvious. It certainly wouldn't be the first time.

All the sources you linked to, John, agree with the passage from Webster's cited by Language Log. "Fewer" is used for countable nouns only, while "less" is used for both mass nouns and countable nouns. Although style manuals since the 18th century have often tried to restrict "less" to mass nouns, actually usage have never followed that.

Given all that, @PreciseEdit errs because he/she appears to assume that "3 gallons" is a countable quantity and therefore "less" cannot be used here.

I agree that "3 gallons" is ambiguous, but it doesn't really matter whether you see it as a mass or three distinct units. In either case, "less" would be perfectly correct (at least according to the sources you and I cited).

For what it's worth (not much, I know), "less than 3 gallons" sounds better to my ear.

The problem comes in with this because people get hung up on the measure instead of the noun.

The actual noun is "gas". You can have more gas or less gas, but you can't have fewer gas.

Leaving out certain words can make for confusion. Do we want less tax or fewer taxes? Fewer than seven employees or less than half of the staff?

I find it easiest to fit the noun first and then add the measure when appropriate.

We could avoid the problem altogether, saying, ..."under three gallons of gas." ;-)

Less weight, fewer pounds. Less stock, fewer items. Nest question?

Next time...carrots. This little tweet of mine was actually in response to what a co-worker had just said. She had just pulled a gallon-sized jug of juice out of the fridge and was holding it in her hands. "Do we need to get more juice?" she asked. "How many do we have?" I replied in response. "Less than two," she answered. I turned gleefully to my Twitter ap and knocked out that disturbing little tweet...thinking of gallon-sized jugs of juice. And jugs are easily countable nouns. Provoked a little discussion, didn't I? Where's the recall-revise-resend option on Twitter when I really need it?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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