Fewer Errors, Less Often

posted Apr 17, 2010, 5:51 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Apr 19, 2010, 1:40 PM ]
The cartoon below, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, is very funny, but life has the habit of imitating art:

Many native speakers of English constantly mix up 'fewer' and 'less', and this occurs almost universally in supermarkets, where there is usually a special place to pay if you have '10 ITEMS OR LESS'.

This is an incorrect use of the word 'less'.  As always, we need to consult that great work, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H.W. Fowler (1858-1933), first published in 1926.  Fowler explains the issue in the following way, under the head 'less(er)': 'less', he writes, is

applied only to things that are measured by amount and not by size or quality or number, to nouns with which much and little, not great and small, not high and low, nor many and few, are the appropriate contrasted epithets....Less tonnage, but fewer ships; less manpower, but fewer men...

Fowler and his brother F.G. Fowler (1871-1918) had already produced The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Oxford, 1911), which in its many editions is still every Englishman's most authoritative and handy source of all grammatical knowledge.

Imagine my surprise and amazement last week, then, upon entering a New York branch of Whole Foods Market, where the food is excellent if a bit pricey:
http://www.wholefoodsmarket.comThis is what I saw at the check-out:

Knowing that no one would believe me if I claimed that at Whole Foods you pay more but you get better grammar, I took out my cellphone and took a photograph.  Within seconds, I was confronted by the manager of the store, who demanded to know why I was taking a picture in his shop.  (Maybe I was a spy from Supersol?)  I explained the grammatical issue at hand, which was new to him, and he allowed me to proceed, clutching my bag of 'Stacy's Simply Naked Pita Chips' (a typical Whole Foods product):

So pay attention to grammar, and make fewer mistakes, less often.  And remember, they're always watching you in Whole Foods:

[Fowler on 'less' vs 'fewer' is online at A dictionary of modern English usage - Google Books Result]