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The expression to a lesser extent meaning “less strongly or not so much” is commonly found with the comparative form of less.

Curiously, Google Books shows that “to a less extent” was initially, from the beginning of the 19c., the more common form and that only decades later the “lesser” form became the more commonly used.

Nowadays most dictionaries suggest the use of “lesser” as the correct one, but how did its usage evolve from less to lesser? Is “to a less extent” grammatically wrong?

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    Is “to a less extent” grammatically wrong? No. merely old-fashioned. The OED has it in notes as less as meaning "inferior" without any direct comparison being necessary. Lesser is a comparative and therefore does require a comparator. It seems the use of "less" became confused by the late 19th century as there was usually a comparator to be found.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 20:33

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Johnson's 1755 dictionary defines lesser as:

A barbarous corruption of less, formed by the vulgar from the habit of terminating comparatives in er; afterwards adopted by poets, and then by writers of prose.

It seems that "lesser" was long considered incorrect, since it was the result of appending a comparative suffix to an adjective that was already comparative. Now, of course, it has taken over when used in this context.

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  • Absolutely intriguing. What I like about this site is when I discover that my firm convictions of what is “correct” English turn out just to be current usage. On reflection, I wonder whether before using “to a lesser extent” I should ask myself whether I could express the idea in fewer words.
    – David
    Commented Mar 25, 2023 at 17:53

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