I was writing a document in Microsoft Word, and it flagged "less resources" as being ungrammatical and suggested "fewer resources". I did some research, and it appears that "fewer resources" seems to be used more often, and one commenter on another English usage site said this was correct. But this seems odd to me. I try to be diligent about using "fewer" with countable nouns; a phrase like "The software has less bugs than it did last week" just grates on me. But even though "resources" is a plural and thus looks like a countable noun, it doesn't seem as though it should be, logically. If I were to write a business analysis that said "Plan A requires fewer resources than Plan B", would that mean that, say, Plan A would require only 15 resources while Plan B might require 17? This doesn't make sense. But is it possible for a noun such as this to be considered countable, grammatically, even though it makes no sense to use it with an actual count?

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    Microsoft Word grammar checker can't check for actual grammar; it just notices that this is plural in form. Turn it off; it's full of zombies. BTW, fewer resources is quite reasonable; that means fewer varieties and sources of resources, under these circumstances. – John Lawler May 6 '14 at 0:19
  • You may find useful this link: oxforddictionaries.com/words/less-or-fewer – user66974 May 6 '14 at 0:42
  • @JohnLawler If it were only MS Word saying this, I would have ignored it, but some other research seemed to point in the same direction. But my thoughts about that other research fell on the floor somehow. I've edited my post. Thanks for the info. – ajb May 6 '14 at 1:01
  • Related: “Less” vs. “fewer” – choster May 6 '14 at 1:42

In standard grammar "few/fewer" is connected with a plural noun and "little" ( meaning not much) and "less" with singular of uncountables. As a non-native speaker I can't judge whether people in spoken language really observe this rule. It might be that people often use less + plural because they consider this differentiation as impractial for everyday language. English has too many words and it is the only language of the ones I know that makes such an unnecessary distinction.

The funny thing is that French peu (not much/not many), the origin of few, can be connected with singular and plural.

It seems that in the past some grammarian of renown suggested that "little" should be used with singular and "few" with plural and somehow this suggestion became a grammar rule. Actually a rule that complicates the system and I think that people who don't observe this invented rule simply try to make the system easier.

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  • Few does not come from French. It is a Germanic word (though it is of course related to French peu). The distinction between little/less and few(er) is common to most older Germanic languages (but has been lost in some). – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '14 at 6:57
  • According to etymonline the source is Latin paucus/a/um and plural pauci meaning not big in number. And Latin paucum/pauci gave French peu, so in Dauzat, etymology, and from the English pronunciation of few I take it that the word came into English via French. – rogermue May 6 '14 at 7:07
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    That is not what etymonline says. It says the word is from a PIE root *pau- (questionable reconstruction, but that doesn't matter for current purposes), and that cognates in other PIE branches include Latin paucus. The English word comes directly from the PIE source, not from Latin. The fact that the word has an f in all Germanic languages is actually proof that it didn't come from Latin (and certainly not French!), since Grimm's Law happened before Latin ever came into contact with the Germanic languages. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '14 at 7:20
  • For me it is not interesting where the word comes from. The nearest occurrence for me is Latin paucum, pauci. In questions as to Proto-Germanic or Indo-European or even PIE I not so much interested. I can't verify it, there are too many constructions and assumptions. - What about Latin pater and English father? – rogermue May 6 '14 at 7:38
  • What about them? They too share a common ancestor in PIE, but English did not borrow it from Latin. To bear and ferō are the same, as are fish and piscis, warm and formus, etc. If you’re looking for close cognates of ‘few’, look within Germanic: Icelandic fár, for example, which directly continues the Old Norse form, or Gothic fawai, or Old High German fao. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '14 at 8:06

Looking at Ngram fewer resources is a much more used expression compared to less resources.

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The less versus fewer 'rule' is total BS. No-one ever has a problem with more being applicable to both count and non-count nouns (e.g. 'more children', 'more whisky') -- why, then, the ridiculous fuss about insisting on fewer instead of less for count nouns? If it were me, I would completely ignore MS Word's 'correction', which has no basis in anything except a stupid rule invented by prescriptivist grammaticasters.

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  • This question is not asking about what is understandable, but what is grammatically correct according to the standards of the English language. – FracturedRetina May 6 '14 at 1:24
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    It's true that the traditional less versus fewer rule is descriptively inadequate. However, that doesn't mean the two are fully interchangeable. This answer could be improved by telling us what the rule is, not just what the rule isn't. See The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language p.1126-7 for one description. – snailplane May 6 '14 at 3:00
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    I like the view and wording of Erich Kowal. Courageous, but I think Erich has a point. – rogermue May 6 '14 at 6:54
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    The count distinction between little/less and few(er) is not a silly rule made up by a prescriptivist. It's a natural part of the English language that's been around for millennia, but which is losing ground. Feler, the old comparative of many, has already completely lost out to more, and its antonym is on the wane as well. That doesn't make the old distinction silly or stupid, though, and if your aim is to write what readers will recognise as formal English, you should not simply ignore it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '14 at 7:13
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    Your argument was that because more works for both, so should less/fewer. That argument is no more valid than saying that because more works for both, so should much. I am not disputing that less is used with count nouns by native speakers, but just like with other linguistic variants that belong to certain registers only, that does not make it advisable to do so in all registers. Formal writing is a register where I would strongly advise against using less with count nouns, just as I would advise against using ain’t, even if both are perfectly fine in colloquial speech. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '14 at 8:01

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