When Less Is More . . . More Correct

August 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Fewer than one in four people who are pregnant are vaccinated,” said Noelle King on NPR this morning. Fewer? Really? Why not less?

I suppose that Ms. King or whoever wrote the script was thinking of the individual people. Grammarly.com, an online source, offers the same prescription.

To decide whether to use fewer or less with a percentage, you will have to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, “What is this a percentage of? Is it countable?”

Fewer than eight percent of the world’s people have blue eyes.

Although counting the world’s people would be an unenviable task, it is possible to count individual people. Therefore, eight percent of the world’s people is countable and we use the word fewer.

Even if you think you should use fewer when talking about separate, countable things, the NPR lede makes no sense. The only number “fewer” than one in four is zero in four. That would mean that no pregnant people are vaccinated.

Dollars are countable, but we don’t talk about “people whose income is fewer than seventy thousand dollars a year.” The same goes for many other things. We don’t say, “I weigh eight pounds fewer than I did in March,” or “Stop for gas. We have fewer than two gallons left in the tank.”  

All of these statements — vaccinations, incomes, gas tanks — are not not about individual people or things; they are about a level or rate. And when you are talking about levels, it makes more sense to use less.

In the NYT last month, the print edition had a story about Covid rates in counties where “fewer than 40 percent” of residents had been vaccinated. The online version corrected this to “under 40 percent.” I guess the copy editor didn’t have the confidence to change it to less.

I seem to be hearing this kind of fewer more and more. (I wish I had some actual data to show the trend, but I don’t,) Those contests from my childhood where you were asked to write something in “twenty-five words or less” would now be “twenty-five words or fewer.”

What’s wrong with less? My guess is that fewer sounds like what educated people say. Fewer is more sophisticated; less sounds so ordinary. It’s like using fortuitous rather than fortunate. The words sound alike, and in many instance, both could apply — things that are fortunate may also happen unexpectedly by chance. So why not use the one that sounds like something a person with a large vocabulary would say? Of course, I’m fighting a losing battle here.  I expect that in a few years, if it hasn’t happened already, dictionaries will tell us that the meaning of fortuitous has now expanded to cover both. But to my ear, it’s like being served the salad course at dinner and asking someone to “pass the dressage.”

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