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This question already has an answer here:

This question, "Discrete Units of a Continuous Quantity", asks whether units of a continuous quantity should be spoken of as discrete or continuous.

The top answer states

The rule is simple, and you obviously know it: discrete quantities require the use of "fewer" and continuous quantities require the use of "less".

Calorie, as a unit, requires the use of "fewer". Energy, as a continuum, requires the use of "less".

"Fewer calories means less energy."

I do not understand the logic here though. Calorie is a unit, yes, but it is a continuous unit (it is possible to have half a calorie, or 4.582394 calories). Since a calorie is such a small unit of energy compared to what it is usually used for (food energy and human metabolism), it is very seldom expressed in a fractional form and instead is rounded (usually to the nearest 10 or higher).

Why then should "fewer" be used with calorie instead of "less"? Is there another relevant rule than just "continuous quantities use "less" and discrete quantities use "fewer"?

marked as duplicate by curiousdannii, J. Taylor, jimm101, Davo, Peter K. Jan 15 at 13:45

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  • 53
    This isn't logic, it's grammar. We generally say fewer miles, too. See Ngrams. That's because miles and calories are countable; distance and energy aren't. We say less fruit, as well, even though fruit usually comes in discrete units. – Peter Shor Jan 10 at 16:40
  • 11
    Nothing is continuous when you get down to quantum levels. – ab2 Jan 10 at 17:17
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    @ab2 while that is true, I still have fewer quanta of energy, which together make up less energy. – Joseph Rogers Jan 10 at 18:52
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    [As a non-native speaker] That seems pretty obvious and logical to me. Do you see the S (plural) in calories? Do you see the word are (instead of is) in your question? Then use fewer. On the other hand, if we were talking about energy, we would get: energy, is, less (not energies, are, fewer). [I'm sure a native speaker will find several exceptions, but I think this works fairly well as a starting point] – marcus Jan 11 at 14:02
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    Because you can't have 4.582394 energies. – A C Jan 11 at 17:44
76

Divisibility does not mean something is not countable or that it isn't a discrete unit, requiring use of 'fewer'. A calorie is not 'energy' it is a 'unit of energy', and therefore, countable and discrete, even though it's divisible. It's divisible into further discrete units - half a calorie, in this case, is still a discrete unit.

Using another example, you would have 'fewer' jars of peanut butter, even though someone might have eaten half of the peanut butter in some of the jars. You could even cut the entire jar in half, none of that matters, you still have fewer jars. And you also have less peanut butter, in the same way that fewer calories means less energy. The calorie corresponds to the jar, not to the peanut butter (that would correspond to the energy the calorie measures).

It doesn't matter that there is 'less' peanut butter in some jars than in others any more than it would matter if some of the jars were a gallon in size, and some were just single-use jars with two tablespoons of peanut butter inside. Put another way, your 'half a calorie' is still a unit, and thus, you'd still say 'fewer calories'.

  • Some units are used as synonyms for the quantity being measured. In formal writing, this is generally only done with a few nouns that have an "-age" suffix (for example, people usually refer to "voltage"), but informally it may be applied to a wider range of units. When describing "X as having "50% less calories than Y", the word "calories" is shorthand way of saying "caloric energy" using 50% fewer syllables. – supercat Jan 11 at 0:47
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    I don't think your jar analogy is working here, especially the discussion of jars that are half-empty (even though we talk about "empty calories", it's not really possible for a single calorie to contain less energy than any other calorie). Maybe tablespoons of peanut butter would work better? – 1006a Jan 11 at 0:55
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    @1006a This is one of the rare times I disagree with you. The jars and peanut butter work deliciously. (Except perhaps when the jars are cut: 1.5 jars doesn't sound like it should be described as "fewer jars" than 2 jars; but "less jars" sounds worse.) – Lawrence Jan 11 at 1:55
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    @supercat I doubt that is what’s going on in most cases. It’s more likely just that the distinction between less and fewer is becoming blurred in English, and a lot of people use less almost exclusively. Many also say ‘less people’ and ‘less units’, neither of which can be explained as any kind of shorthand. And hardly anyone, even if they otherwise distinguish less and fewer, would say, “There are fewer than ten minutes left” – fewer still would even begin to consider, “There were more or fewer a dozen people in the room”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 13 at 2:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet indeed so: in conversation with my barber not long ago I used the word fewer and he stopped me to ask what it meant. – 568ml Jan 13 at 12:38
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it is possible to have half a calorie, or 4.582394 calories

It's also possible to have half a cow or 4.582394 cows. Indeed, the same is true for almost every countable noun that existed at the time when "fewer" came to be the word we used with countable nouns. Perhaps it's impossible to have half a thunderclap...

This shows that it's a mistake to think that the existence of fractional quantities means that a noun is uncountable. Rather, countable nouns are those that can be modified by a number and which have singular and plural forms.

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    Are we talking about Schrodinger's cow? – PatrickT Jan 12 at 18:32
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    @PatrickT: No, that's when we simultaneously have one cow and no cows. – Sean Jan 12 at 21:22
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    @PatrickT No, we are talking about the Spherical Cow. – MichaelK Jan 14 at 10:00
  • And we'll know which it is only if we open it up, right? – PatrickT Jan 14 at 12:45
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While calories are continuous to scientists, most lay people don't think of them that way. Food and activity calories are always reported in whole numbers, often only precise to hundreds or thousands, because for most people's purposes any more accuracy is not meaningful or useful.

So in common use we treat them as discrete units, and the language we use reflects that. We use "more" and "fewer" when comparing things, and ask things like "How many calories does an egg have?" and "How many calories do does an hour of exercise use?" (rather than "How much", which would be used for non-countable quantities).

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    I don't think "calories are continuous to scientists". Energy is continuous, the units that measure it are not. The problem is that with energy, we often use the units to speak about the quantity. We say how tall is the building, not how many meters is the building. We ask how much do you weigh, not how many pounds do you have - but we ask how many calories are in this snack when we mean how much energy is in this snack. – michael.hor257k Jan 11 at 20:08
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    @michael.hor257k Yeah, it's hard to describe the precise thought processes, I was just trying to convey that regardless of how it might be treated technically by scientists, that's not how lay people talk about it. I'm also reminded that in French they use similar terminology for age, they ask "How many years do you have?" – Barmar Jan 11 at 20:18
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    To sum up the point briefly: Scientifically, calories are continuously divisible (or at least the quantity they measure is), but grammatically they’re countable, and that’s what’s relevant for the fewer/less distinction. – PLL Jan 12 at 1:17
  • @PLL To reiterate the point, calories are not "continuously divisible" - scientifically or otherwise. – michael.hor257k Jan 13 at 5:31
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    @michael.hor257k Unless you're talking about the quantum level, they're as continuous as any other scientific measurement. – Barmar Jan 13 at 5:38
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You shouldn't use "fewer" instead of "less" necessarily. Look at this NGram:

Link

In many cases "less calories" is more common than "fewer calories". In no case is there an enormous difference either way.

It depends on how conceptually you see what it is you're describing with either "less" or "fewer". In this case it's whether you see the calories as individual units (plural), or one sum of things, ie., energy (singular). Oxford Online Dictionary blog explains:

(In a supermarket/store) Ten items or less.(Correct or incorrect?)

Firstly, having absorbed the guidelines above, you may suppose that some supermarkets are grammatically on the ball by displaying notices at checkouts that state ’10 items or fewer’ (fewer rather than less being the right choice because it’s referring to items, that is, a number of things?). In fact, there were reports a few years back that Tesco had replaced their signs reading ’10 items or less’ with ones which said ‘Up to 10 items’, so as to placate the sticklers. Sorry, no need! This is an example of hypercorrection. Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage puts it very succinctly:

  • ‘Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read 5 items or less (which refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read 5 items or fewer (which emphasizes individuality, surely not the intention).’
    Link

The point is fewer is used for plural and less for singular. But the mental notion of whether something is singular or plural seems to be an influencing factor in whether "less" or "fewer" is used.

Look at the difference in usage between:

  • less than two miles
    and
  • fewer than two miles

The full explanation of "fewer" and "less" is not just as simple as the explanation in the answer you linked.

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    "Less calories" is definitely wrong, as you have explicitly demonstrated "calorie"'s countability by writing it in its plural form. – Apollys Jan 10 at 22:52
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    @Apollys Are either "less than ten items" or "ten items or less" wrong also? – Zebrafish Jan 10 at 23:25
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    @JohnMontgomery So you disagree with the writer of the Online Oxford Dictionary article, Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage, along with other grammars, and CGEL that characterises your insistence on this as a "shibboleth" and "stylistic choice". OK. It's strange, because "I'll be back in fewer than ten minutes." doesn't quite sound right. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fewer_versus_less – Zebrafish Jan 10 at 23:49
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    less than ten minutes is correct because the focus is on the the thing that is less than ten minutes. You are really saying, I'll be back in a time that is less than 10 minutes. The time you are talking about is continuous so can be less than a fixed time. If you say 10 items or less, you are talking about a group of items that can be counted and that can be fewer than ten. You've switched the focus of the statement. – Oscar Bravo Jan 11 at 8:01
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    @OscarBravo If you say "10 items or less", it's not really clear what you are talking about because you have elided the word that "less" qualifies. A lot of people use it to mean "10 items or less stuff", which is why "less" sounds natural. On the other hand, it doesn't make quite as much sense to view "10 items or fewer" as an elided form of "10 items or fewer items", because the latter would more naturally be expressed as "10 or fewer items". – Especially Lime Jan 11 at 9:16
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"Fewer" refers to quantity in general, even when the notion of units is ambiguous or abstract. It can refer to discrete, continuous, and even infinite quantities.

There are fewer points in the Cantor Set than on the closed interval [0 ... 1]. Note that both sets of points are infinite, but the Cantor Set is a lesser infinity.

There are fewer kilometers to travel from Earth to the Moon than from Earth to Mars on any minimal-energy trajectory. If the journey is powered by conventional rocket propulsion systems, the engines will burn fewer calories, and proportionally fewer Watts. Also note that at the end of that last sentence, Grammarly suggested I use "fewer."

There are fewer odd numbers than integers in the set of whole numbers ranging sequentially from 1 to any fixed positive integer N greater than 1.

Why? Because this is English.

2

I think the citation you provide is misleading because it refers to the intrinsic qualities of the thing described by the noun.

My suggestion: Don't focus on whether a noun refers to something divisible. (Virtually everything is divisible.) Instead, just research to find out if a word is "countable" or "uncountable".

Sometimes, words will function both ways -- three beers are countable, while "some" beer is not countable. If you say, "I would like a lot of beer," the listener might bring you a single large keg of beer, but if you say, "I would like a lot of beers," the listener will bring you many cans or bottles.

In short, don't think too hard about it, just look up the word you have a question about in the English learners' dictionary: https://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/beer

2

Both less and fewer are correct, however, many English speakers prefer fewer in this context, especially in formal speech. Here's the relevant portion from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Chapter 13, Section 4.1.2:

The relation between less and fewer is fairly complex. In non-count singulars only less is possible: Kim has less/*fewer money than Pat. In plural NPs we have:

  1. She left less than ten minutes ago.
  2. Less/Fewer than thirty of the students had voted.
  3. He made no less/fewer than fifteen mistakes.
  4. You pass if you make ten mistakes or less/?fewer.
  5. He took less/*fewer pains to convince us than I'd expected.
  6. He made fewer/less mistakes than the others.

Both [1] and [2] have than + numeral. In [1] ten minutes expresses an amount of time rather than a number of individuated units, and in such cases fewer is virtually impossible – just as few would be in a comparison of equality: She left as little/*few as ten minutes ago. Similarly with We paid less than thirty dollars for it; She's less than forty years old; We were going at less than ten miles an hour. In [2] we are concerned with countable individuals and little cannot be used in a comparison of equality (*as little as thirty of the students); nevertheless, for inequality less is more common than fewer in this construction. The same applies with percentages: Less/Fewer than 30% of the students had voted. Construction [3] has the comparative form following no: though the interpretation is count plural, less is here again more common than fewer. Construction [4] has or after a numeral: less is the usual form here, with fewer quite marginal; this construction is widely seen in supermarkets, with the fast checkout labelled eight items or less, or the like. In [5] pains is plural but non-count rather than count (we can’t ask how many pains he took), and here only less is possible. Finally in [6] the comparative occurs directly with a count plural noun: both forms are found, but less is subject to quite strong prescriptive disapproval, so that fewer is widely preferred in formal style, and by many speakers in informal style too. [emphasis mine]

[Quotation edited for formatting/readability.]

So the short answer is that the traditional rule is an oversimplification, but it has influenced English speakers to prefer fewer over less in this context. But nevertheless, both forms are found and are thus not wrong.

0

We simply don't speak of 5 Energy.

The key difference here, mathematically, is rationals vs real numbers. That is, even if you cut your kilocalories in half, you would always have a finite-length number to describe the amount. Hence, the rationals as well as the natural numbers are called countable. The set of Real Numbers on the other hand is an uncountable set, because for every finite-length number, you can have an infinite amount of infinite-length real numbers that start with the finite length number. The details are tricky, I'm not a maths teacher.

So far so good. Why then is energy uncountable? It's a historically grown thing. The whys and hows of this fact should be part of a different question, though. (I mean, I really don't know).

Suffice to say that the distinction between the measured object and the measurement result is purposeful.

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    I don't think this distinction is relevant. The set of numbers we can name in the English language is countable, so this argument would imply we should always use "fewer" rather than "less". – stewbasic Jan 14 at 5:39
  • Also, it seems this answer is somehow confusing the mathematical idea of countable or uncountable sets and the linguistic idea of countable and uncountable nouns. – JiK Jan 15 at 15:06
  • @JiK it's not confusing, it's trying to combine or, rather, ameliorate, consolidate, subsume. I think the concepts are easy enough not to be confused. I have to concede to stewbasic, that while PI is a real and a computable number, thus easily named, the computable numbers are still countable (in the logic sense) and I wouldn't know a theme to name or enumerate (same difference?) an uncountable set. I can easily name the set, though. – vectory Jan 15 at 15:14
  • @stewbasic there's a school of constructive mathematics that tries to work from the computable numbers, avoiding the uncountable set of real numbers. Implying that continuities like one likes to imagine could be done away with. For Grammar, it's an interesting question and some problems are immediately obvious (much sand vs many sands) other's are problematic anyhow (many calories vs many (types of) calories vs much fruit vs many fruits) and there are cases where, if you need to demark a grammatically countable set as practically uncountable, you suddenly have some problems. – vectory Jan 15 at 16:04
0

In expressions like "less than ten minutes", "less" is correct because it could be considered as referring to the implied word/concept "time", as in "less [time] than ten minutes". The emphasis is not in the units as the exact quantity of time in non-integer (in general) minutes is not important, as long as it is less than ten minutes. So for continuous quantities, as energy, time, and distance, I consider both "less" and "fewer" to be technically correct, with "less" being better. When someone refers to something discrete, as in "ten free throws or less", I would consider "less" to be technically wrong but it still sounds good to me. Just as when adjectives are used instead of adverbs.

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