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Less/fewer, too much/too many, amount/number... When people get these things wrong, it bugs me. But I cannot think of a situation where mistaking a mass noun for a count noun (or vice versa) would ever introduce any kind of ambiguity.

Is there such a case?

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The less/fewer and amount/number dichotomies are false ones — they are not reflected in usage. (Yes, there is a tendency, and yes, there are certain cases where only one works, but it is not a nice clean split.) At some point in time, when prescriptive rules to make language "more logical" were all the rage, recommendations like these were pushed forward. Some people mistakenly believe them to be actual grammatical rules of English, which they are not. I say, if this recommendation did not take hold after over a hundred years, then the suggested "logical" dichotomy was just not optimal. –  Kosmonaut Aug 30 '10 at 13:45
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@Kosmonaut I like how you criticise prescriptive rules of grammar, but then categorically deny that the less/fewer distinction has any content while still admitting it has some basis in usage. Way to undermine your own point. [p.s. who said grammatical rules had to be unambiguously dichotomous?] –  Seamus Aug 30 '10 at 15:28
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@Seamus My point is that when it bugs you that people get it "wrong", they aren't getting it "wrong" in these cases. Your annoyance implies that you don't like the ones that don't fall into place — why else would you be bugged by it? These places where people are "wrong" are the usages that just don't fit this arbitrarily overreaching rule. –  Kosmonaut Aug 30 '10 at 18:10
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The thing is that less has been used with count nouns for hundreds of years. The idea that it cannot be used with them was made up in the 18th century, and has never reflected the way the language is actually used, not now, not then, not ever. See my answer here english.stackexchange.com/questions/505 –  nohat Aug 31 '10 at 1:07
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@Seamus no one is claiming there is no distinction between mass and count nouns. What we are saying is that less (like more) has always been applicable to both mass and count nouns. The “rule” saying that less can’t be applied to count nouns was made up and has never been true of how the language works, nor has it been stringently enforced by anyone other than some deluded English teachers. The MDEU entry gives copious examples of how less is used with mass nouns in a perfectly grammatical way all the time: books.google.com/… –  nohat Aug 31 '10 at 15:19

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think you are correct in that if a noun is unambiguously mass or count then the qualifier doesn't matter, the meaning can be taken from the noun.

However compare: I ate too much fish vs. I ate too many fish.

If the noun is ambiguous in that way, then the meaning must be taken from the qualifier. So if you mistook "fish" for a term that was always mass or common, then you could produce an ambiguous statement.

(Inspired by Shinto's example)

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I think that's a pretty harmless example of confusion. In either case, too much fish was eaten. Whether or not this was in the form of an over-large tuna steak or too many whitebait is a pretty flimsy reason to establish such a far reaching linguistic convention. Is that the best you've got? ;) –  Seamus Aug 30 '10 at 15:21

The classic example (which is probably an urban myth) is a foreign learner saying "I ate a chicken last night" when he meant "I ate some chicken last night". Mistaking chicken (the meat) for a countable noun makes it sound like he ate an entire bird.

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+1 for the urban myth. I love the example! –  Manjima Aug 30 '10 at 12:52
    
lots of people eat [almost] entire birds, though... :) –  warren Aug 31 '10 at 20:36
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Perhaps replacing "chicken" with "turkey" would give a better example. Eating a whole chicken is plausible, especially if it's a small one. Eating a whole turkey would be a prodigious feat. –  Nate Eldredge Feb 29 '12 at 15:06

Some words have different meanings depending on count/ noncount usage. If you turn in "a paper", it means you have given the teacher an assignment, while simply having "some paper" means you have plain paper with nothing on it. I have two papers, means I have two assignments. I have two pieces of paper means I have two pages. I have a chicken means I have a bird, and I have some chicken means I have some bird meat.

Most words only have one meaning and usage, so confusing the two just sounds awkward rather than truly confusing like the paper and chicken examples.

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So misuse of "too much" with count nouns is much rarer, but I can see an argument for "I have too much papers" being a possible case of confusion. But it's still the case that whether "paper" is plural or not decides between the cases, no? "I have too much paper" [mass] vs "I have too much papers" [assignments] –  Seamus Aug 31 '10 at 12:39

I was recently in a grocery store where the express lane was marked "10 Items or Fewer." I made a mental note that that was a classy chain, so in a marketing sense, getting it right made a difference.

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You can't enroll in Tattooing 101 because you have too many classes. You can't enroll in Tattooing 101 because you have too much class.

You cannot make too many glasses if you don't have much glass. You can make fewer glasses if you have less glass. You can only make a little glass if you only have a little glass.

My uncle has too much wood in his cabinet shop; there's not enough space left for a new planer. My uncle has too many woods in his cabinet shop; there's no need for him to stock zebra wood.

My sister doesn't like that radio station; she says it has too much blues. My sister doesn't like that wallpaper; she says it has too much blue. My sister doesn't like that wallpaper; she says it has too many blues.

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Here's a real life example.

  1. "Here's a box full of books, most of them are quite good. Here's another box. It has less good books in."
  2. "Here's a box full of books, most of them are quite good. Here's another box. It has fewer good books in."

(1) feels like it should be parsed as follows: "It has [less good] books in". That is, the books in the box are of (uniformly?) lower quality. "less good" is behaving like a compound adjective. (2) on the other hand, seems to suggest "It has fewer [good books] in". "Good books" is behaving like a compound noun. The suggestion this time is that the books are possibly of similar quality, it's just that the box isn't as full: there are fewer books.

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