"Less" and "Fewer," Does It Matter?

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Misanthrope

Member
Apr 26, 2020
247
665
Pacific Moistwest
I used to have a stick up my ass about grammar and stuff like that. Now I just don't care...if I understand what the other person was trying to say, that's good enough. If not, I'll ask for clarification.

It's the message that matters, not the delivery. Shutting down an earnest speaker just because they didn't meet some arbitrary standard of linguistic propriety is rude and makes me look like a giant throbbing dick, and that doesn't improve the quality of my life in any fashion.

Now, if it were a technical conversation where an extreme level of clarity is warranted, I'll politely ask clarifying questions and step through the whole thing one detail at a time. Otherwise, it often just doesn't truly matter in any genuinely meaningful sense, and isn't worth raising one's blood pressure over. As long as I understand the message, it's all good.
 

mso489

Preferred Member
Feb 21, 2013
32,603
21,706
Many people who learned English as a second language and who have a studious bent can run circles around most native English speakers who operate, as do I, mostly by a considerable reading habit and by simple imitation. I don't think I ever formulated the "less" and "fewer" distinction until I heard it used differently. People who learn any language as a study know it like someone who is a trained mechanic versus people who only drive the car, though they may be intensely familiar with it as a driver.

Sable's discussion of scrambled movie script notes illustrates the practical problem of vague usage. Ulysses Grant, as a General, was famous for delivering written orders in the briefest form that could not be misread, which was a huge benefit under the pressures of war. He used those skills in writing his autobiography as well.

The real test of the success of language, though not necessarily its correctness, is whether it is understood, whether the message gets passed to the audience. And of course, some language (legal, technical, street slang) Is precisely intended not to be understood by those outside the group. Many of the early computer systems trainers didn't translate their tech-speak because, maybe not consciously, they didn't want to give up their special advantage. They knew the digital world, others didn't, and that was their advantage in jacking up their salary.
 

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anantaandroscoggin

Senior Member
Sep 9, 2017
389
448
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Greene, Maine, USA
When it comes to such things as < and >, the jargon for almost every specialty tends to steal words from elsewhere and applies its own technical definition to it, which means it won't conform to normal language rules of usage when specialists are using it relative to their technical field.

My own recent annoyance is the too-common use of "decimate" which means "to reduce by 10% (or, One In Ten)" when they mean "nearly obliterated."
 

mso489

Preferred Member
Feb 21, 2013
32,603
21,706
Certain turns of phrase or words will take hold and be obnoxiously overused. Right now, I hate "inflection point," which promises to be as longstanding and useless as "point in time." But there are many, many others. "Revisit" to denote talking about something again later. Ugh. Cliche de jours.
 

cigrmaster

Preferred Member
May 26, 2012
16,221
21,401
United States
English is my native language. I know I speak at an 8th grade level and I don't care. My entire business life was first in sales where the only thing that mattered was my sales numbers. I could be a stuttering moron and no one cared if my sales were great. When I opened my own businesses my language skills were never an issue unless I was negotiating a lease and most of those times I had my lawyer doing most of the talking.

My mother will still correct me here and there when she catches me making a language mistake. I humor her and say yes ma I did make that mistake, thanks for correcting me. She likes correcting me still to this day and she is 86 years old. I never have corrected any of my kids as they probably speak better than I do.
 

frozenchurchwarden

Preferred Member
Mar 1, 2014
2,326
707
Language changes, and usage changes, so you have to accept some errors that are also just changes in usage. Still, for anyone who has been around long enough to cultivate a particular usage, the "wrong" diction can really grate. Even seven figure broadcast anchors are tending toward using less instead of fewer. What the hell am I talking about? Fewer used to be used to describe things that are countable, that occur in units. You don't say less people; you say fewer people. Less is used for quantities that come in a flow, like less cream in your coffee, or less gas in your car. When this old rule is ignored, it clunks for me like a dropped automobile differential. I have less respect for most bad usage, and admire the fewer speakers who get it "right."

Maybe people don't make this distinction anymore because we can count everything in atomic scale measurements where there's no difference between fluids and solids, everything is particulate.

People are figuratively referred to as a "flow" as well, cities are described as having arteries and people are the blood of the system. Even if you maintain the Fewer/Less distinction, as soon as the figure of speech is used it would be correct to refer to people as a fluid.
 
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jpmcwjr

Moderator
Staff member
May 12, 2015
17,798
10,093
Carmel Valley, CA
Funny, my son goes apeshit when decimate is used incorrectly!

The most common error is gratuitous apostrophes, esp in "its", the possessive. E.g., "The dog wagged it's tail."

Do I care? Yes, but except for really egregious errors, not a lot.

Sidebar: Safeway here on the coast changed their signs from "15 items or less" to "15 items or fewer". I was amazed.
 

jpmcwjr

Moderator
Staff member
May 12, 2015
17,798
10,093
Carmel Valley, CA
Perhaps now is the time to post this:

47 RULES FOR WRITERS:

1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)
6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
7. Be more or less specific.
8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
10. No sentence fragments.
11. Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous, and repetitive. Repeating admonitions is annoying.
14. One should NEVER generalize.
15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
16. Don't use no double negatives.
17. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
20. The passive voice is to be ignored.
21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical
words however should be enclosed in commas.
22. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
23. DO NOT use exclamation points and all caps to emphasize!!!
24. Use words correctly, disirregardless of how others use them.
25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth
earth shaking ideas.
26. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when
its not needed.
27. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate
quotations. Tell me what you know."
28. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times:
Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
29. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
30. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
31. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
32. Who needs rhetorical questions?
33. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
34. The passive voice should never be used.
36. Do not put statements in the negative form.
37. Verbs have to agree with their subject.
38. A writer must not shift your point of view.
39. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long
sentences of ten or more words, to their antecedents.
40. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
41. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
42. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
43. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
44. Each person should be careful to use a singular pronoun with
singular nouns in their writing.
45. Always pick on the correct idiom.
46. The adverb always follows the verb.
47. Be careful to use the rite homonym.
And Finally...
47. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
 

anotherbob

Preferred Member
Clear and accurate language matters to me. For example, when I'm working on a show I often get review notes. When those notes are framed in ambiguous language I can't execute revisions correctly. This slows me down, and adds to costs. So I'm demanding when it comes to notes. When I'm supervising or directing on a show I use very specific language concerning the changes I require, and the notes had better reflect this. I no longer allow production personnel to deliver my review notes without my first looking them over. If someone doesn't deliver my notes verbatim, they get assigned to a different job where they can't add to the general chaos that is production.

I'll give you an example regarding how imprecise language can cause problems. Some years back I was working on a show where the written description for a character's acting response was written using a colloquialism. The phrase was "her face lit up with delight". When we got back the animation from the overseas studio they had animated the character's face lighting up like a light bulb. Since the damned script had that phrase written it it, we were obliged to pay to have the animation redone.

Over the years I've witnessed hundreds of instances of incompetent delivery of crucial information and the resulting chaos. Most people I've met are at best indifferent communicators who seem to think that because they know what they mean the rest of us will somehow magically comprehend their incoherence.

That clear enough?
great example of context making all the difference. Talking in a forum you can get sloppy. Spending lots of money and time getting a group of people to perform separate but intimately intertwined roles, you had better say explicitly what you mean.
 

anotherbob

Preferred Member
Like when younger folk bitch and moan about things being "labelled." As if there is any language on this planet which doesn't have any nouns whatsoever.
I don't think that's quite what they're bitching about. Young people haven't always been the most articulate or fully thought through (sorry for the awkward wording. If I understand it's more they don't want things limited by labels then a hate of labels. Which is a lot more understandable, who wants to be boxed in. God I remember when my generation was young what a shitty job we did of explaining ourselves and what things we saw. Heck I've seen enough old film of teens and 20 somethings talking through out the decades and lots of times they're not great at being clear (a few exceptions of course that make adults sound inarticulate but the majority of the time....). Or as I tell young people no matter how smart you are you're one of the dumbest yous you'll ever be right now.
 

bnichols23

Preferred Member
Mar 13, 2018
4,064
8,396
SC Piedmont
great example of context making all the difference. Talking in a forum you can get sloppy. Spending lots of money and time getting a group of people to perform separate but intimately intertwined roles, you had better say explicitly what you mean.
And even then somebody will misinterpret. "I'm only responsible for what I say. Not for what you read into it."
 

anotherbob

Preferred Member
And even then somebody will misinterpret. "I'm only responsible for what I say. Not for what you read into it."
my favorite is it's implied obviously. No it's not. Or you just don't understand the context of the quote I just used. Nope just the context in which you chose to use that quote sorry it made you sound like a jerkface mailbox head (shout out to the Sealab 2020 fans),
 
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gamzultovah

Preferred Member
Aug 4, 2019
1,239
5,029
I used to have a stick up my ass about grammar and stuff like that. Now I just don't care...if I understand what the other person was trying to say, that's good enough. If not, I'll ask for clarification.

It's the message that matters, not the delivery. Shutting down an earnest speaker just because they didn't meet some arbitrary standard of linguistic propriety is rude and makes me look like a giant throbbing dick, and that doesn't improve the quality of my life in any fashion.

Now, if it were a technical conversation where an extreme level of clarity is warranted, I'll politely ask clarifying questions and step through the whole thing one detail at a time. Otherwise, it often just doesn't truly matter in any genuinely meaningful sense, and isn't worth raising one's blood pressure over. As long as I understand the message, it's all good.
I believe a wise man once said: “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up”... Very wise of you to choose the latter.
 

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