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.


  • "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.

  • 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'? Jan 26, 2014 at 8:31
  • 5
    I would not use 'at fewest ten times', nor have I ever heard it used by a native speaker.
    – WS2
    Jan 26, 2014 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, 2014 at 13:23
  • 3
    There should be fewer "10 items or less" signs. Jan 26, 2014 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.
    – emsoff
    Jan 26, 2014 at 18:17

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 1
    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, 2014 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. Feb 6, 2014 at 22:01
  • 2
    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, 2014 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. Feb 7, 2014 at 5:54

The British National Corpus has 25,000 incidents for "at least", none for "at fewest" http://bnc.bl.uk/saraWeb.php?qy=At+fewest&mysubmit=Go

Google Ngram confirms this fact link


If someone presents to me At least something, I'm expecting the high probability of there being more than the object of comparison, but certainly a quantity of the object of comparison.

On the other hand, if I hear At fewest, no matter what you tell me, as I've not likely heard this before, I'm probably going to spend time thinking about it and think in small quantities, and probably (and wrongly) think in terms of an upper limit approaching the object of comparison. I can't immediately muscle-memory leap to consider there being referenced more than fewest.

If you ask me to stake a claim on a grammar basis, I'll put it to the point of what (in my opinion) grammar should be: given an audience, be understood.


There are still some pedants around telling us we should only use fewer for countable nouns and less for uncountable / singular mass nouns, but I'll ignore them (as I always have! :) I'm not sure the general principle is even relevant to at least / fewest [number] anyway.

We normally include the article when we're being emphatic (at the very least). I can't find any written instances of article-less at fewest [number], but here are a few for at the fewest twelve.

It sounds a bit "dated" today by comparison with the now-favoured at least [number] (where it would be very unusual - but not invalid - to include the article), but I certainly don't see the fewest version as "ungrammatical". It's just a matter of idiomatic preference / stylistic choice.

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