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I have been under the impression that the distinction between fewer and less was with countable vs. uncountable nouns. But I've just encountered the claim that it's plural vs. singular. Which is it? Or is this one of those ambiguous cases?

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Why not just use "nobody"? –  Peter Shor Feb 13 '13 at 15:42
    
@Peter: Of course I wouldn't actually say either of these things; I'm just curious which would be "correct" (whatever that means). –  Dan Tao Feb 13 '13 at 15:49
    
This Ngram might help. –  J.R. Feb 13 '13 at 15:56
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I think the Ngram can be explained by the fact that "fewer than one" has to be zero, while "less than one" can be fractional. Many of the hits in the Ngram are phrases like "less than one person in a million". Thus, the difference between countable and uncountable may imply the difference between plural and singular. (Although maybe technically you should also say "less than three people in a million".) –  Peter Shor Feb 13 '13 at 16:01
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@J.R.: For whatever reason that doesn't quite satisfy my curiosity (clearly I'm hunting for some sort of "rule" here, though maybe one doesn't exist); BUT... that is a sweet tool! Thanks for teaching me of its existence! –  Dan Tao Feb 13 '13 at 16:10
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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, KitFox Feb 14 '13 at 0:33

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

The "rule" is that it's a matter of count vs. mass.

The question is whether it's a really a rule at all. It seems to have started with Robert Baker in 1770, who expressed it clearly as a preference rather than a rule. It didn't become a rule until some time after.

On the one hand, this is a good argument to just use either, as you see fit.

On the other, there are cases where less is ambiguous and fewer is not. "Less people" isn't ambiguous, but "less excellent people" is, if you mean that the number of people was less, but their excellence just as high.

There being a "rule" that many don't follow, is enough in itself to make fewer more formal and less less so, in those circumstances where you could use either.

It's hence probably advisable to favour fewer in formal writing. Whether you always do so or use whichever sounds better to you in other cases, will be a matter of opinion, without hope for consensus.

"Fewer than one person" and "less than one person" both sound strange though, when nobody is probably going to serve better than either.

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A mnemonic I made up for the distinction helped a lot of my students. "You don't use "less" when you can add an 's.'" Reductive, I know, but it helped a lot of struggling students. –  livresque Feb 13 '13 at 19:41
    
Nice—great answer, thanks. For what it's worth, here's what prompted the question: a tweet claiming the distinction is along singular/plural lines. To be fair, judging from the conversation, the author appears to consider this more a useful rule of thumb than a law. –  Dan Tao Feb 13 '13 at 19:58
    
"There's too much cat in this soup. Less of it please. Less cat." is using cat as a mass noun, not as a singular count noun. It's the same rule I mentioned above, phrased badly. (I'm not sure if that's deliberate or not; certainly the example is aiming at humour; cat is considered unwelcome in soup in any quantity, by most Londoners). –  Jon Hanna Feb 13 '13 at 20:08
    
Of course, I didn't say what my own opinion was on the cases where less isn't ambiguous. Personally, I'd give that tweet less than ten out of ten, rather than fewer than ten out of ten. –  Jon Hanna Feb 14 '13 at 2:34
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