Aloha Fellow Grammarphiles! I hope you have been having as many rib-cracking hysterics as I have been enjoying during our endlessly entertaining political personality parades. (It’s either that or give up and cry.)
I tried to resist for several weeks, but I can’t contain myself. I confess to one tiny polite little tweet suggesting that if Americans were better educated, they would know the difference between “less” and “fewer” and when to use each appropriately. Honestly, I’m not compulsive about these things: there are times grammar rules should be broken for effect, or style, or dialogue, and many times we’re in such a rush we don’t correct even the easy fixes. But this one just keeps rubbing the wrong way.
I used to teach overseas at a small West Indian College where the students were actually desperate for formal education. In the younger grades, children would walk barefoot on muddy tracks for miles to get to the closest public school. My upper-level students were practicing for their A-levels, and with a single exception, would come to school whether or not they could afford the textbooks, in hurricane weather, and packed 13 to 14 in muggy, humid mini-vans with music speakers that cost more than the van. They participated. They asked great questions. They did their homework, and wrote my required essays with barely a murmur of dismay. They knew that in our tiny banana republic–which had unbelievably produced not one, but two Nobel Laureates–a diploma was literally their ticket to a future. I was humbled and inspired by their dedication and respect.
Teaching in the U.S. requires a different description altogether–maybe “kid-sitting” or “live entertainment” or “dealing with forty varieties of attention-deficit disorder,” or even “looking out for who is most likely to be carrying a gun.” Not that I don’t enjoy the challenge and value our results–it’s just that the sense of appreciation for learning isn’t there. Which leads to statements such as America needing “more welders, less philosophers.” I beg to differ.
Two rules are actually broken here: for countable nouns, the appropriate word is “fewer,” as in “please make fewer awkward grammatical errors in front of the entire country.” Also, “fewer” is used for plural nouns where “less” works with singular nouns. Since “errors” are both countable and plural, using the adjective “less” makes the speaker/writer sound … well, shall we say under-educated?
(First published in LinkedIn Pulse, November 2015)