Less and Less, Fewer and Fewer

Here at UK Transcript Solutions Ltd, we transcribe for a wide range of media, everything from YouTube subtitles and blogging all the way up to television and radio. Listening to the radio the other day, though, we picked up on something interesting.

As many people know, there is a classic rule governing whether ‘less’ or ‘fewer’ should be used in any given sentence – less milk, fewer teabags. Anything you can count gets the ‘fewer’ treatment, while ‘less’ is to be used for anything you can’t.

Oliver Kamm from the Times had a different opinion when asked on Radio 4, though – he calls the rule a myth, founded in 1770 by Robert Baker, an “ill-informed pedant”. Not much remains on Baker’s life, although both editions of his book, Reflections on the English Language, are available on archive.org:

Less. This Word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. No fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper.

As you can see, the first example of this ‘rule’ wasn’t a rule at all, just a suggestion that one word seemed more elegant than another. But there you have it: the short opinion piece that changed grammar standards for the next 250 years.

That said, there are still many areas where the rule has never caught on – how many times have you used the ‘ten items or less’ checkout? Driven ‘less than 20 miles’? Gone somewhere with ‘one less person’ than you planned?

Arguably, there’s a long list of exceptions out there where the rule has been modified to allow us to talk normally. We like ‘less’ for time, and single objects, and money, and weight, and distance, and…

At the end of the day, there’s no need to worry which you’re using when you send us audio for transcription. You can say whatever you like, more or less.