I thought "people" is countable, so we should say "fewer than five people"?

Being in the US for many years, I rarely hear people saying "fewer than," even with countable nouns like "people."

I presume this usage is grammatically wrong, but idiomatic?

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    There are probably contexts in which "less than five people" is correct. In general it's probably a "mistake" caused by people not caring to follow a rule that adds little or no important information. It may be a language shift in the making, like the disappearance of "whom" and the subjunctive mood. Oh well, say la v. – Juhasz Jul 11 '19 at 19:41
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    I don't find such things limited to Americans. – choster Jul 11 '19 at 19:42
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    I also hear: "There's a lot of people here." It's just usage. – Cascabel Jul 11 '19 at 19:52
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    See the graph at Google Books which shows that that exact phrase is currently more popular in British books. – Mitch Jul 11 '19 at 20:00
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    See Lynne Murphy's The Prodigal Tongue about the tendency of Brits to assume that any usage they don't like must be American (and the tendency of Americans to assume that any usage they like more than their own must be British). – Colin Fine Jul 11 '19 at 22:35

Some style guides presecribe "less" for uncountables and "fewer" for countables; however, historical precedent does not support this stricture, and in some contexts the countable "less" may even be preferred. One such context is when the word is applied to a number or quantity rather than to a group of countable things or amount of uncountable stuff. This is why in mathematics the symbol "<" is read "less than" rather than "fewer than", even when it's expressing a relation between natural numbers. In your example, the phrase "less than" is applied to "five", not to "people".

One way or another, this is a matter of style, not grammar, so "fewer than five people" would be equally correct.

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    Robert Baker was a consummate conman. In his Reflections on the English Language he managed to sell aspiring writers of English that particular piece of snake oil, that has taken them in for 200 years. There ws no such rule until he tentatively advanced it. – Colin Fine Jul 11 '19 at 22:33
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    Is it also fair game, therefore, to conflate 'much' and 'many'? If there are less people this year, how much people were there last year? How many time did it take them to get there? – Jim L. Jul 12 '19 at 7:13
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    Despite assertion that there is no such rule, in most cases the "incorrect" version does sound wrong to a native speaker. – OrangeDog Jul 12 '19 at 9:32
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    There's a difference between "less stupid people" and "fewer stupid people". – Roger Lipscombe Jul 12 '19 at 9:42
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    @RogerLipscombe There's a difference between 'one less stupid person' and 'one less stupid person' too, but it takes context to disambiguate them. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 12 '19 at 14:35

'Fewer' is more syllables. People will always prefer a word with fewer syllables than one with more in spoken communication.

  • This is an incredibly important point - if the purpose of language is to enable clear communication then the optimal form is the shortest form that clearly communicates the message. – Unencoded Jan 2 '20 at 16:23

“Less than five people” is grammatical

You use less than before a number or amount to say that the actual number or amount is smallar than this.

  • Motorways actually cover less than 0.1 percent of the countryside.
  • Less than a half hour later he returned upstairs.


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    What about discrete units like 'items', as in the perennial express grocery line proviso question? – Mitch Jul 11 '19 at 19:49
  • @Mitch- books.google.com/ngrams/… – user 66974 Jul 11 '19 at 19:54
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    Sure. Please add and analyze in your answer if it is relevant. (please discuss the context in which the two versions appear, which is what the OP is asking about, countable vs continuous, AmE vs BrE, and why your answer doesn't belong at the possible duplicate. – Mitch Jul 11 '19 at 19:56
  • I don’t think it has anything to do with AmE, it is just a common usage. – user 66974 Jul 11 '19 at 19:58
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    This does not address the question, which expresses confusion about "less" being used with discrete objects. Countryside and time are both continuous quamtities, and thus call for "less". – Acccumulation Jul 11 '19 at 20:05

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