Writer’s Craft #43 – Measure or Count

Leslie Gadallah
Leslie Gadallah

Leslie Gadallah is published by Del Ray. See her books listed at ISFDB.

English speakers can talk with their hands in their pockets because our language can express delicate shades of meaning without arm-waving. But subtleties can be confusing.

Take, for example, the difference between quantity and number. The supermarket aisle that is labeled “6
items or less” is wrong. Few is the answer to how many and less is the answer to how much. “How much hamburger do you want, a kilo, more or less?” “How many tomatoes, five, six, more or fewer?”

The sports announcer says, “Less people came to the game today.” But unless he’s weighed them and compared that weight to previous weights, he means fewer people came. Quantity is what we measure. Number is what we count.

Perhaps part of the problem lies with “more”. It’s perfectly legitimate to say, “much more” and “many more”. And “much less”. But “many less” just won’t fly, no matter how we might long for symmetry.

Are these complaints didactic, picayune, nitpicking; does anyone care anyway? In two hundred words or fewer, I want to tell you that I do. Such errors blunt the language, make it less precise and therefore less useful. And I don’t like that.

How do you feel about it? Measure up, and be counted.

9 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #43 – Measure or Count

  1. I think this particular battle has already been lost. The language has changed. I myself have pointed out this error on the express lane, but I have yet to see one corrected as a result.

    Precision in language is useful only insofar as the parties in the communication agree on the rule. If they don’t, you just sound like smarty-farty superior girl, and communication is then further impeded by the listener’s attitude.

    Even among people who know this rule, unless they know you well enough to know that -you- know the rule and consistently apply it, they also will be unable to use the rule to resolve ambiguity. And in fact, I’m having trouble envisioning a situation where the disambiguation is useful. Even if the rule were generally understood, we already interpret ‘less’ based on context, because we’re familiar with which things are generally measured by counting and on what the standard of measurement is for other things.

    So if someone says, “A gallon of milk is less than a stereo speaker,” we understand them to mean a cost comparison in context, because the most obvious way these two are comparable is that they’re both things one buys. And if I say, “You gave me less pie,” you assume I mean a measurement of volume, because that’s how pie is typically measured. If I had meant to say that, while the pieces of pie looked to be the same size, I had received the lighter piece, I couldn’t expect that to be understood unless I specified how I was measuring the pie.

    And then, measure versus count is a fuzzier distinction than might initially appear. There’s a lot of difference between one person and two; there’s a lot less difference between 4,560 people and 4,561, psychologically speaking. A lot of something discrete can seem like a quantity even when it is technically a count — especially when the count is imprecise.

    We can see this with money, especially. Money exists in discrete units. But when we compare the prices of two items, we say one “costs less” than the other. I’ve never heard even the most extreme grammar stickler say, “Don’t you mean it costs fewer, i.e. fewer cents?” (A grammar stickler would of course not use “e.g.” in this context.)

    Say we use your sports example, and you -do- tell me, “Less people came to the game.” Since I (now) know how you would use the word “less,” I understand you to mean a measure of quantity rather than a count. But, because counting is the usual way to measure attendance, I can’t assume which other measurement you mean. You suggested it might mean weight, but we could also meaningfully measure based on mass (in case the game is not on Earth), volume, oxygen usage (also useful for off-planet games), total length if laid end to end, etcetera. Simply using the words ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ correctly is not enough to make your communication clear. You would have to say, e.g. “Less people, by weight, came to the game.”

    Or, even knowing that you know the rule, I might assume that “less people” refers to a count, because that’s the usual measure for people and the number of people who come to a sports event is large enough that it might seem like a quantity, just as a large number of cents does.

  2. I’m afraid I have to weigh in with Andre, in that fighting to keep fine distinctions of meaning and use in language is virtually useless, Srsly. I feel your pain, though. I railed at the use of “impact” as a verb (unless you are talking wisdom teeth) but nobody listened. The fact is, language is constantly evolving with use, and “colour” became “color” when it emigrated, and everyone boldly splits infinitives and puts up with that up with which we never used to put.

    It is a class thing. Always has been. How you speak and write helps to identify you as publicly educated, painfully geeky, casually indifferent or don’t make no fuckin dif. It has little to do with money, or real education (think George “ingrinnable” Bush) and more to do with subtle distinctions of intellect. And let’s face it. People who know their there from they’re will tend to do better than people who don’t. It’s like wearing neat, clean clothes to a job interview. It isn’t essential, but it sure helps.

    As Andre points out, it’s all about communication. As long as your audience easily understands what you mean, it’s all good. However, as writers, we all know that it isn’t just what you are saying. It’s how you are saying it. Those of us for whom words are life and livelihood aren’t content merely to communicate. Thus, we care about the fine distinctions and nod with approval when we encounter others who do as well.

    And, on the bright side, our local supermarket did change their fast aisle sign to read “fewer than 14 items”.

  3. I think that the “language is always evolving, so just get used to it and throw away the rule book” has some clout to it. Language evolves. Obviously. English is a mutt language, and if we weren’t willing to take in orphans from other languages, we wouldn’t have as much to say or as many ways to say it.

    To put much more weight to it than is probably necessary, though, I compare it to the Constitution, though on a smaller and more flexible scale. The Constitution has amendments, for times when the country realized things like, “Okay, I know we made it a rule that no one can drink … but this is just ridiculous.” Grammar has to have the ability to bend like that.

    But that doesn’t mean that the English language should just hand over all of its rules at any time that the public gets too lazy to use those rules correctly. Is everyone going to follow those rules? Of course not. And in the grand scheme of things, is it the most important thing in the world that everyone is using “fewer” and “less” correctly? No. But to simply discard the rulebook, declare that since language is always changing, there’s no use holding to old rules … well, I think that’s a defeatist attitude, and our weird little language deserves more than that.

  4. Hi!
    I can see both sides. I like precision of language myself, but see that languages do evolve constantly. Like a river, the language keeps on flowing in its own direction, regardless of past usages. The French Academy keeps fighting a losing battle to keep “Americanisms” out of the French language, but I think “Resistance is futile!” especially in this era of instant, global communication.

  5. I have to side with Leslie here. I find myself losing the gist of what the (announcer/broadcaster/writer, on and on) is trying to get across when these crop up. Supposedly professional, educated people who are, by the way, being paid to do this should know better.

    Another current favourite is the auto dealers here advertising their offerings “biweekly”. I say “I can’t afford to pay you that amount twice a week” and I get a blank look. Some try to explain that is the same as twice a month, (which is also wrong).

    I guess used car salesmen are allowed to be disingenuous and possess few math skills but writers are not. Where does it end? Srsly, enuf of u no how 2 rite gud.


  6. “I think this particular battle has already been lost. The language has changed.”

    Actually, in this case, the language hasn’t changed. “Less” has been used for countables for over 1100 years, going back to Anglo Saxon times. The word predates “fewer” by several centuries, and it was happily used for objects that by counted for about 900 years until, at the very end of the 18th century, someone first expressed an opinion that “less” should not be used for objects that could be counted. It was about another century before people started declaring it a grammar mistake.

    In edited, literary English in any period in English history, you’ll find “[x] [count nouns] or less” far outnumbers the “or fewer” construction (don’t believe me? Go to google books and search for a few such words. The “less” construction is around 80 times more common.

    There are many other cases where less is used with nominal counting nouns. You say, for instance, “five less tomatoes than …” rather than “five fewer”. A related construction, “less than” is much more common than “fewer than”. And when pairing with “more”, “less” is almost always used.

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