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I am wondering about the correct use of lesser/smaller in the following phrase:

This library has a smaller/lesser number of books than the National Library.

I did find another thread on nearly the same question, where one answer states: "As a general rule, 'smaller' is used for size, whereas 'lesser' is used for quantity." In this particular example, however, I am not quite sure how to approach this, as 'number' in this sentence refers to an amount, which you could argue has a size, and 'smaller/lesser number' as a whole only refers to a quantity.

To me, 'a smaller number' sounds better, but I am not a native speaker and I can't make out a clear reason for choosing one over the other.

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Brian Hooper, phenry, anongoodnurse, Kristina Lopez Jan 29 '14 at 15:46

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    I would say both are equally logical, but quite clumsy. Why not just say it has fewer books than the National Library? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 26 '14 at 12:43
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    Ok, maybe the books example wasn't quite a good one. I tried to change my sentence from a (math) paper to something more understandable, and failed. Can you think of a better example? – Yellow Jan 26 '14 at 12:49
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    'Can you think of a better example?' I think they're all going to sound more natural with 'fewer' as the quantifier rather than 'a ____ number of'. 'Three is a smaller / lower / lesser number than eight' are all used. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 26 '14 at 16:27

The meaning is clear in either case, as long as you say 'smaller number', not just 'smaller', as that would imply the sizes of the books were smaller.

However if it were me I wouldn't use either of them. I would say:

'This library has fewer books than the National Library.'

  • Yeah, the books example wasn't a great example phrase. But does this mean that there is no difference whatsoever between 'smaller' and 'lesser' number? – Yellow Jan 26 '14 at 12:51
  • 'A smaller number of people', or 'a lesser number of people', mean exactly the same thing to me. But both are trumped by saying simply 'Fewer people'. – WS2 Jan 26 '14 at 12:57
  • @Yellow: By their very nature, numbers can only have a few "distinguishing characteristics". You could perhaps contrive a potential distinction whereby the number 3 written in a 10-point font could be described as "smaller" than 2 written in a 20-point font, but that's a bit pointless (so to speak! :). On the other hand, a lesser man isn't at all the same thing as a smaller man, for example. – FumbleFingers Jan 26 '14 at 15:38

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