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Which is the correct idiom: "not less than" or "no less than"?

Example (edited):

There were no less than fifty people at the meeting.

There were not less than fifty people at the meeting.

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closed as off-topic by Kris, Josh61, RyeɃreḁd, tchrist, Ronan May 21 '14 at 8:52

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Neither is grammatically (assuming we accept the modern usage of 'less' with count nouns in circumstances like this) or logically incorrect. However, I'd only expect to come across 'I found not less than five parcels at my doorstep.' in a maths problem. It's not idiomatic English. 'I found no less than five parcels at my doorstep.' means 'I found five – five – parcels at my doorstep.' 'No less than' is an emphasiser rather than a quantifier here. – Edwin Ashworth May 20 '14 at 8:35
@EdwinAshworth - If you were to submit this as an answer rather than as a comment, I would upvote it. :-) – Erik Kowal May 20 '14 at 8:39
For the down-voters; this is a genuine question of a non-native speaker. The very same question is asked more often on the net: example 1, example 2 and example 3. I experience this down-voting and some of the comments as pretentious, offensive and not very welcoming. There are better ways to help a non-native speaker. – Gin Gordon May 20 '14 at 9:20
You might do better over at ELL, Gin. But your question as it now stands is subtly different, with 'fifty' being a rough figure (5 couldn't be in normal conversation) – and so, I'd say, belongs here. I'd say the first sentence is now ambiguous, either just being a paraphrase of the second (stating a fact – if not spot-on, at least giving an upper bound – in an unmarked way) or retaining the pragmatic thrust (There were at least fifty – fifty – people at the meeting!) I'd probably switch to 'There were no fewer than fifty people at the meeting.' for the bald statement of fact. – Edwin Ashworth May 20 '14 at 9:33
@EdwinAshworth Upper bound? Surely it's a lower bound : He was no less than 18 stones meaning he weighed at least 18 stones. – Frank May 20 '14 at 9:55
up vote 2 down vote accepted

It depends on the context. Both can be fine depending on what you want to say.

No less than

This is normally used to give emphasis. There are no less than 5 different ways to do this. It is by far the commonest form and the only one regularly used outside academic or technical literature (image generated by searching COCA and BNC for no less than):

COCA: enter image description here

BNC: enter image description here

Not less than

This is indeed far less common but can also be used. I would use it in cases where I want to specify that the minimum required number is X. For example, Use as many eggs as you like but not less than 5. It is more common in technical literature than everyday speech though (image generated by searching COCA and BNC for not less than):

COCA: enter image description here

BNC: enter image description here

As you can see from the images above, no less than is far more common. However, not less than is also used and perfectly correct in some contexts, especially academic literature and on both sides of the Atlantic. Interestingly, it is also relatively common in the "misc" category in the British corpus, which includes religious and administrative literature.

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Cambridge Dictionaries Online has an entry for it:

used to show your surprise at a large number: There were no less than a thousand people there buying tickets.

In the electronic version of the Oxford Hachette Dictionary, under the entry of "less" as an adverb, I read:

no less than 85% au moins 85%

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Example 3 is a different construction altogether, so it is a red herring I will not be addressing.

In example 1 and 2, the variant with not strikes me personally as unidiomatic at best, and outright ungrammatical at worst. It is not something any native speaker I know would produce. It is worth noting that both examples, as well as this question here, were all asked by non-native speakers. Three out of three. So while it does seem to be a popular question among learners of the language, I do not feel it is a choice a native speaker ever feels presented with.

COCA and BNC are not quite as radical as myself, but they do generally back me up:

                              COCA    BNC

there are no/not less than     8/1    5/0
there were no/not less than    7/1    8/0
there are no/not more than    21/4    8/3
there were no/not more than   23/1    5/1

The verdict seems to be rather clear, on both sides of the pond.

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I am Flemish and I am not convinced of the existence of hard language borders. For example, the dialect in Ostend has a lot of commonalities with English. Could it be that neighboring non-native speakers are reminding today's native speakers of expressions that have fallen into disuse on the isles? – Gin Gordon May 20 '14 at 10:25

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