Daily Moan #15: fewer not less

I was going to have a good old Moan about inkjet printer cartridges (especially Epson ones) today: the price of them and how they only put a few drops of ink in each - and how the chips in them make you buy more of the damn things before they've even run out. But I won't. Instead, it's back to grammar and something that when I hear it makes me want to shout at the TV. It's when people use 'less' when they should be using 'fewer'. It happened this morning on 'Wanted Down Under' - yes, I know it's a crappy daytime programme, but I got lured in. I think she was talking about 'less opportunities' or something, but it made me shout out: 'FEWER!'

According to my dictionary, less is used when talking about relative amounts or quantities and fractions thereof, eg 'eat less jam' or 'the government cuts will mean less money in your pocket' or 'he has less hair than he used to'. Whereas fewer is used for things measured by discrete number and usually deals with plurals, eg 'government cuts will mean fewer policemen on the beat'. Confusingly, however, less can used with numbers when they are on their own, eg 'Their marriage lasted less than four years'.

Supermarket checkouts with signs saying '10 items or less' are wrong. It should be '10 items or fewer' but try telling that to Mr Sainsbury. 'Less graduates will get jobs this year' is wrong. It should be fewer graduates. The Plain English Campaign, according to the BBC article about Tesco linked to earlier has a simple rule of thumb: less means 'not as much', whereas fewer means 'not as many'.

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