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For example:

I need a tire with less ply.

or

I need a tire with fewer ply.

Is "less" correct because ply is a singular noun? Or should it be "fewer" because it refers to a specific count of plied material? Or should "fewer plies" be used to reduce ambiguity?

A quick Google search seems to show that "fewer ply" is much more common. However, it could lead to confusion in the example below:

Continuing trend toward fewer ply tires is expected." -Technological trends in major American industries

It might seem that it refers to the number of tires as opposed to the having fewer plies, which seems to be the intention.

Another example could be toilet paper:

I normally use 3 ply, but now I am searching for a brand with (less/fewer) ply.

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    The 'fewer for discrete, less for continuous' distinction doesn't hold rigorously. 'That's one less problem' is the idiomatic choice. Here, though 'ply' is a count concept, and especially because 'ply' rather than 'plies' is used, I'd go with 'less'. This seems in line with usages found in a Google search for "fewer ply" and "less ply". – Edwin Ashworth Aug 9 '16 at 18:56
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    The article you cite includes this sentence: "Experts claim that tires with fewer, stronger plies build up less heat with no less strength than tires with more plies." Writers use the singular form ply when they are using the word as part of an adjective phrase modifying an explicit or implicit noun, as in "three ply tires" or "3 ply [toilet paper]." When ply functions as a noun and the author means to refer to more than one ply, he or she normally uses the plural form plies. Hence, "I need a tire with fewer plies." – Sven Yargs Aug 9 '16 at 18:57
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Fewer is used when referring to countable quantities (in which case the noun is usually in plural), and less is used when referring to uncountable quantities (in which case the noun is usually in singular). So I would say fewer cows, but less milk.

If I understand correctly, a ply is a layer. So plies would be countable quantity, just like layers, and I would say fewer plies as you suggested yourself.

However, I can imagine that there could be situations where the word ply is sometimes used informally for something made of layers, for example as a shortening of plywood. In which case you could say ''less ply'' in this context, as it would actually be short for ''less plywood'', which is fine.

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    The 'fewer for discrete, less for continuous' distinction doesn't hold rigorously. 'That's one less problem' is the idiomatic choice. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 9 '16 at 18:57
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    What rule does hold rigorously, especially when you bring idiom and colloquial usage into it?! That's like saying that the rules for conjugating 'to be' are invalid because they don't hold in The Wire. The distinction is a pretty good guide in standard language. – Rhidian Aug 9 '16 at 19:08
  • I'm pointing out that 'Fewer is used when referring to countable quantities (in which case the noun is usually in plural), and less is used when referring to uncountable quantities (in which case the noun is usually in singular).' violates the Gricean maxim of quantity. Even a 'nearly always' would have avoided this. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 9 '16 at 21:52
  • The fact that you have resorted to citing Grice is probably a violation of his own 'maxim of manner' (I had to look that one up). – Rhidian Aug 9 '16 at 22:36
  • You might like to look up a well-referenced discussion of the less / fewer debate in this earlier article. nohat's answer is particularly thorough. / As stated above, Google results seem to indicate that 'less ply' is the more common of OP's suggested variants (in searches for "less ply" + "tyre", etc) – Edwin Ashworth Aug 9 '16 at 23:24
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I'd go with neither in this case. The ply rating is a scale, and you should instead say "I need a tire with lower ply".

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    This is a good point. I guess that you'd also use this for toilet paper i.e. 'my bottom is sore because I used a lower ply toilet paper' rather than 'my bottom is sore because I used toilet paper with fewer plies'! – Rhidian Aug 9 '16 at 22:51
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Both "fewer" and "less" imply a comparison with something in larger amount or number. Although "less" is widely used in place of "fewer", particularly in informal writing and speech, the distinction between them seems useful. "Fewer" applies to number. (Fewer horses are seen on the street these days). "Less" can be used in several ways: less material in the dress, less coverage, less than a dollar. (The less money we have, the fewer purchases we can make.) —Harry Shaw [Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them]

"Less" would better suit your original sentence, IMV.


Another example could be toilet paper: "I normally use 3 ply, but now I am searching for a brand with (less/fewer) ply."

In that sentence, the ply is countable, so I would use "fewer".

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