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Is the expression "many fewer combinations" correct? It only gets about 600 hits on Google, against 1,200 for "a lot fewer combinations". What would be a correct way of expressing the idea contained in "many fewer combinations"? would it be best rephrased using something like "a large reduction in the number of combinations", or something similar?

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possible duplicate of When is "less" appropriate vs. "fewer"? –  Robusto Jul 15 '11 at 12:46
    
@Robusto Although certainly related, I don't think this is a duplicate as it's asking about a different issue (specifically, much vs. many and which is used with "fewer"). –  rintaun Jul 15 '11 at 19:57
    
@rintaun: No worries. Folks seem to agree with you, so the question is more than likely to remain open. –  Robusto Jul 15 '11 at 20:04

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I would say that the expression "many fewer combinations" is perfectly acceptable and should be understood just fine. As there is some disagreement on this, however, it may be preferable to use a different expression. Some examples of alternates follow.

  • "a lot fewer" - As you suggest, this is correct; however it is somewhat more informal-sounding, which may or may not be right for your situation.
  • "far fewer" - This post on alt.usage.english suggests that "far fewer" rose in popularity due to the confusion between much and many fewer.
  • "significantly fewer" - As strangeronyourtrain suggests in his answer, this seems to be a very good choice, and can be used in many different contexts.
  • There are also an endless number of ways this could be rephrased, rather than simply changing "many." Your own example of "a large reduction in the number of combinations" seems fine (if a bit wordy).

Regarding the disagreement about many or much fewer, in this discussion, it is contended fewer is an adjective, and thus the adverb much must be used over the determiner many. In my opinion, this is actually a misunderstanding of the function of the word fewer; it is in fact, a determiner itself, not an adjective.

Basically, because "combination" is a countable noun, you use many and fewer to describe it. Uncountable nouns such as "sand" and "water," on the other hand, are described with the words much and less.

However, Google's NGram Viewer shows that while "many fewer" has been in use for quite a while, it did not become the preferred usage until about 1960. This may be due to the reasoning above, and the growth of "many fewer" may be a result of hypercorrection, as Tragicomic suggested in a comment.

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But nobody would disagree with "many more", would they? –  Urbycoz Jul 15 '11 at 10:39
    
@Urbycoz: You're right. Actually I take back that comment. Based on what @Rintaun says, "Many fewer combinations" should be fine. However, it sounds like hypercorrection to me. Is "many fewer combinations" really perfectly acceptable in normal usage (over "much fewer combinations")? There seems to be a lot of discussion about this all over the internet. I had always thought "much fewer" to be acceptable usage. –  Tragicomic Jul 15 '11 at 11:49
    
I think the reason people seem to be uncomfortable with "many fewer" is that in one pair of meanings "many" and "fewer" are close to opposites. But I don't think there's anything either ungrammatical or ambiguous about it. –  Colin Fine Jul 15 '11 at 14:06
    
I'd be careful about significantly fewer in some contexts, since it may imply something about statistical significance, which both would require backing up, and also may not actually be a "lot" fewer, just enough fewer to be statistically significant (i.e. non-negligible). –  KRyan Jun 20 at 1:29

Some suggestions that are less awkward about quantifying the quantifier:

  • far fewer combinations than
  • significantly fewer combinations than
  • not nearly as many combinations as
  • much more uniform than (I don't know if this phrasing suits your context—it's just a guess)
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Interesting. The original sentence is something like "… because we now have many fewer combinations". I can see "far fewer combinations than in the past" being a possible wording; I wonder if one could do without an explicit comparison, though. –  EOL Jul 15 '11 at 11:19
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Nice suggestions, but am I wrong that this doesn't answer the main question? –  Corey Jul 15 '11 at 15:07

the word "fewer" already holds a comparative meaning of being less than "few" considering you mean to say something like "I had few options", "now I have fewer", the word "fewer" alone is enough to signify this. If you want to emphasize a great difference between "few" and "fewer", my suggestion is that you could use "even fewer"

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