Less money, fewer coins

To the purist, the distinction between “less” and “fewer” is clear and absolute: Use “fewer” for items that can be counted (coins); use “less” for quantities or amounts that can be measured (money). Thus, to at least one reader, a headline in Thursday’s Business section 1 less at furniture preview contains an irritating error. I admit that the headline gave me a twinge, too, but then I started thinking about why such usage doesn’t grate on all ears. Why does that Fifth Dimension song from the 1970s “One Less Bell to Answer” (Bacharach/David) seem OK?

I turned to the usage/grammar experts. In Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994), the editors find “less” used to describe countables as far back as the ninth century. They trace the “rule” to Robert Baker’s 1770 “Reflections on the English Language” and find that Baker merely expressed a preference. The editors quote examples that contain “less drugs,” “less mistakes” and “less people,” among others.

William A. Sabin in The Gregg Reference Manual gives a more grammatical explanation: “Fewer” is used with plural nouns, and “less” is used with singular nouns. I’m getting closer.

Then I encounter an even better explanation for why that headline sounds OK, from the esteemed Theodore H. Berntstein’s “The Careful Writer.” Bernstein agrees that, in general, “fewer” is for number and “less” is for quantity. But, he writes, “… you run into idiom trouble if you reduce the number to one; you cannot say ‘one fewer seats,’ nor can you say ‘one fewer seat.’ The only escape hatch is ‘one seat fewer.'”

Ah, it’s a relief to find a respectable explanation for why that headline sounds just right to most of us, even though it sounds terrible to some of us.

Here are links to posts about “fewer” and “less” on blogs: Literal-Minded and Tenser, Said the Tensor.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.