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"Less" vs "fewer" - is there a similar rule regarding the words "more" and "greater"?
November 13, 2009 3:41 AM   Subscribe

"Less" vs "fewer" - is there a similar rule regarding the words "more" and "greater"?

I've had a google and a trawl through various online usage guides. they all agree on the difference in usage regarding 'less' and 'fewer', but there are varying opinions on the other side.

Example sentence:

The piece must contain no fewer than 196 words, and no more/greater than 204 words.


My gut is to use 'more', but in terms of word shape, 'fewer:greater' and 'less:more' seem like a more natural pairing.

Any help on this? Thanks!
posted by Cantdosleepy to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
'Greater' means 'larger' or 'better'. So 'no greater than 204 words' seems like an odd use of the word.

I suppose you could say 'no greater number of words than 204', but that's not very elegant.

Stick with 'more' for both amounts and quantities. 'More' and 'greater' are not related to 'less' and 'fewer' in the way that you suggest.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:40 AM on November 13, 2009


Stick with 'more' for both amounts and quantities.

..by which I meant to say "Use 'more' for both numbers of things and quantities of substances".
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:42 AM on November 13, 2009


And to clarify with examples:

These are ok:

1. You have less cheese than John.
2. You have more cheese than John.

But one of these is wrong:

1. You have fewer peas than Gertrude.
2. You have greater peas than Gertrude.

In this case, 1 is fine, but 2 says that your peas are better than Gertrude's, not that you have more of them.

However, "you have a greater number of peas than Gertrude" is absolutely fine, if a little 1950s-British-school-textbook-ish.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:50 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, there isn't a similar rule, but you can invent one if you like.

After all, Robert Baker invented the less/fewer rule in Remarks on the English Language back in 1770, before which nobody had much cared.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 5:22 AM on November 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


Awesome, thanks doiheart! Googling Mr Baker I found this fab article on the matter:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003775.html
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:49 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The less vs. fewer rule is largely an invention by pedants. Here's Merriam-Webster's usage notes on less vs. fewer:
usage The traditional view is that less applies to matters of degree, value, or amount and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole while fewer applies to matters of number and modifies plural nouns. Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing. Less is more likely than fewer to modify plural nouns when distances, sums of money, and a few fixed phrases are involved <less than 100 miles> <an investment of less than $2000> <in 25 words or less> and as likely as fewer to modify periods of time <in less (or fewer) than four hours>.
In your example both greater and more work fine.
posted by Kattullus at 5:49 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The less vs fewer rule may have been invented by pedants, but it is not only pedants that routinely adhere to it.

If you submitted text to a proofreader which contained the phrase "there were less blooms on the plant than there had been the day before", or indeed "there is fewer of a mark on the bath now i have cleaned it" you would certainly be corrected.
posted by greenish at 6:00 AM on November 13, 2009


After all, Robert Baker invented the less/fewer rule in Remarks on the English Language back in 1770, before which nobody had much cared.

He may have been the first to articulate the general rule. That doesn't mean he invented the rule.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:18 AM on November 13, 2009


I think 'lesser' and 'greater' work in the same way for count nouns (count nouns are the ones you'd use 'fewer' for, as in 'less chocolate'/'fewer pieces of chocolate').

I see less/fewer misused in print all the time, and it brings out the pedant in me.
posted by mippy at 6:43 AM on November 13, 2009


> The less vs fewer rule may have been invented by pedants, but it is not only pedants that routinely adhere to it.

If you submitted text to a proofreader which contained the phrase "there were less blooms on the plant than there had been the day before", or indeed "there is fewer of a mark on the bath now i have cleaned it" you would certainly be corrected.


Wrong on both counts. It is a fake rule adhered to only by pedants by definition, since no speaker of English would adhere to it naturally (since it is not a rule of English). And I am a professional copyeditor (and was a professional proofreader before that), and I would not "correct" that first sentence since it is already correct. (I'm not sure why you tossed in that ridiculous "fewer of a mark" thing, but I've noticed it's the kind of thing prescriptivists tend to do, in the spirit of "Think gay marriage is OK? Then what about people marrying horses? It's the same thing!!")

> I see less/fewer misused in print all the time, and it brings out the pedant in me.

No, you see less/fewer used normally all the time, and it drives you nuts because you believe untrue things about English. Free your mind.
posted by languagehat at 7:14 AM on November 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Wow... clearly I need to rethink my life... thanks for the snark Languagehat, I'll just keep my thoughts to myself next time!
posted by greenish at 7:36 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


So what usage advice do you have for 'more' and 'greater', Mr Hat?
posted by Cantdosleepy at 7:37 AM on November 13, 2009


Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing.

I have to respond to this, because appealing to dictionaries for some kind of "legal ruling" is a dangerous practice. When your M-W says "usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing", that's not permission to use it. That's now how dictionaries work. That's a warning about how it will be received when used that way, and advice on when it makes sense.

Fewer for count nouns and less for quantities is a convention that rings true for most contemporary English speakers. So, if knowing that, you choose to say it the "roundly decried" way as in "I want less students this year"... well, you may be correct as all hell, for whatever "correct" means, but you're also asking for that aforementioned decrying from your readers. So if you are writing dialogue for a gas-jockey or Valley Girl, go for it. But if you're not, be prepared to be interpreted a certain way that might not be flattering.

Word choices matter in ways that cut much deeper than right-wrong, correct-incorrect. And languagehat, I know exactly what you are saying in that you'd pass it, but if you write or allow "there were less blooms on the plant than there had been the day before", you are communicating a certain sloppiness or casualness. If that's the goal, to sound like a reg'lar person and not a scientist reporting a fact, then cool. But if I submitted that, and it wasn't in a piece of "country dialog", an editor would change it to fewer, perhaps with a note asking "Why?" in case I had a real reason. It happens.

Back on the actual OP question: Despite the fact it doesn't seem to follow the count/non-count "rule", the stock phrase "No less than 10 and no more than 30 words" is a convention that's damn-near idiomatic in North America now, because we have all seen that instruction on hundreds of written exams.

So if you want your writing voice to be quiet and unnoticed (unpretentious) here -- and that's a good goal for almost all writing, really -- use that and move on. No more bean analysis necessary.
posted by rokusan at 7:40 AM on November 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


More and greater do not have the same relationship as less and fewer. You're trying to force a parallel that isn't there.
posted by rokusan at 7:41 AM on November 13, 2009


I agree with rokusan.
posted by Dolley at 7:57 AM on November 13, 2009


I think the same dicotomy can be seen in the uses of "much" and "many" as opposed to "more" and "greater."

I ate so much food.
I ate so many bananas.

One is for indiscrete amounts, the other for a specific amount.
posted by frecklefaerie at 8:52 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


[comments removed - all of you know better - go to metatalk or go for a walk]
posted by jessamyn at 1:15 PM on November 13, 2009


Anecdata from a native English speaker: "10 items or less" is fine, and only objectionable to pedants. Using "fewer" in place of "less" is something I've never heard, and it would befuddle me. "Greater" and "more" don't seem to be analogous to that pair to me. I would perceive "greater" to imply something more qualitative, and "more" to be strictly about quantity.

Summary:
"Less people" OK
"More people" OK
"Fewer people" OK
"Fewer milk" Huh?
"Greater people" Doesn't imply a larger NUMBER of people.

Which answers the question - I don't care about how great your words are, I care about how many you've written.

Anyway, someone will be along to disagree presently, but that's my view. Greater people than I may think differently ;-)
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:31 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hey guys. Thanks for all the responses. I wasn't expecting it to get as heated as it did - turns out the less'n'fewer thing is more disputed and/or nuanced than I had realised. Either way, this has solved my more'n'greater problem. So cheers all. Sorry for sparking any unpleasantness, jessamyn.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 6:29 PM on November 13, 2009


"The piece must contain no fewer than 196 words, and no more than 204 words."

(talking about the number of words)

"The piece must be no less than 196 words, and no greater than 204 words."

(talking about the size of the piece)

Also, "more" can usually be replaced by "a greater number" depending on which feels better.
posted by gjc at 8:18 AM on November 14, 2009


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