Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

After this question was put on hold, I am editing this to clarify that I am not seeking "the most wrong answer," but that I am instead asking for a reason for the continued use of a construction that some still haphazardly propose in certain situations.

I'm not at all a prescriptive grammarian so I would like to know the argument one would make for preferring the quoted title formation over the more common,

I've told you at least ten times...

It seems to me this would be the logical construction if you agree with the "rule" that "few" or "fewer" should be used with count nouns. Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage phrases it:

Here is the rule as it is usually encountered: fewer refers to number among things that are counted, and less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured. This rule is simple enough and easy enough to follow.

Before you think that I'm being difficult or arguing for an "incorrect" answer in offering the title construction as an aberrational example, consider that I've encountered people who do believe this.

  • I've had people correct me when saying, for example, "There are at least ten bagels downstairs."
  • At least one store has taken note and changed their signs to conform to this "grammatical standard."
  • There are plenty of times where it occurs in writings. Examples are below.

Examples

  • "Two of the British Troops, at fewest, were scalped, & one of them before he was dead." - Letter from John Dickinson to Arthur Lee, April 29th, 1775.

  • "...and end this empty Letter with a Thousand Compliments to Dear Mr. Lysons and his happy Family: 500 at fewest to Miss Sharpe-her Letterto me was both kind and wise." - The Piozzi Letters* by Hester Lynch Piozzi

  • "...the iron trade had rooted itself so firmly, that, in the intermediate period of the years above mentioned, at fewest fifty additional furnaces were erected." - A Treatise on the Progressive Improvement and Present State* by John Holland

  • "Reptiles with completely developed hind limbs have at fewest four toes..." - The Great Dinosaur Controversy: A Guide to the Debates* by Keith M. Parsons

To clarify, I am not asking for a summary of the less vs. fewer argument. I am perfectly capable of opening a book or Googling to find such a summary. I am asking for those who are bothered by "10 items or less" signs to provide an argument in favor of universally applying those rules to count nouns. If there is a "rule" as prescriptionists in this area claim, it seems to be the construction in the title would be correct. I disagree, but, I would like to know their answer.

Simplified question: Why would some argue for "10 items or fewer" and not "I've told you at fewest ten times"?

In accordance with this site's rule of Keeping an Open Mind, I ask that this question not be closed or on hold, but be open for those who do have input to contribute.

share|improve this question
3  
The 'less' v 'fewer' debate is discussed comprehensively in this thread. Wikipedia adds: 'It has also been noted that it is less common to favour "At fewest ten items" over "At least ten items"...' and Google and Google Ngram results certainly strongly support this view. But 'incorrect'? –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 26 at 8:31
4  
I would not use 'at fewest ten times', nor have I ever heard it used by a native speaker. –  WS2 Jan 26 at 11:14
4  
Word to the wise: I'd strongly advise against making this grammatical point to your wife when she says this phrase in conversation. –  T.E.D. Jan 26 at 13:23
2  
There should be fewer "10 items or less" signs. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 26 at 16:44
2  
@Mitch Someone corrected me when I said, "There are at least ten more bagels downstairs." I called them an idiot and asked whether they would also find the above acceptable. –  jboneca Jan 26 at 18:17

1 Answer 1

The question seems to deal less with the 'less/fewer' issue than the 'at least/at fewest' one.

'At least' is a restrictive particulariser. These refer to a specific number, a subset of a larger quantity, and as the lowest limit of that larger quantity, seen as a magnitude. 'At fewest' is illogical, as 'fewest' is a superlative, which implies 3 or more things being compared. It refers more to the objects being compared more as multitudes or specific quantities, rather than a magnitude of a large, unknown quantity.

I would therefore argue that 'at least' is correct in this case; 'at fewest' is not.

share|improve this answer
    
While I agree with your conclusion, I find your argument odd. First, least is also a superlative. Secondly, logic is in general a rather weak argument for questions of language use. –  Colin Fine Feb 6 at 20:23
    
@Colin Fine - You're absolutely right - least is a superlative. The question was about the restrictive particulariser 'at least'. If logic represents the relational aspects of logos, what more appropriate means to explore language use than logic? If you mean the use of the cold, sterile rules of syllogisms, with no conscious reference at all to their underlying ratios and proportions, I couldn't agree more. –  Leon Conrad Feb 6 at 22:01
1  
I have no idea what "the relational aspects of logos" might mean. You said "At fewest is illogical". My response to that is "What has that to do with how people use language". –  Colin Fine Feb 6 at 22:21
    
@Colin Fine - It's too big a subject to get into here, but happy to continue the discussion elsewhere. We seem to have different views of the importance of the intrinsic, integrated quality of logic and language. –  Leon Conrad Feb 7 at 5:54

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.