6

I am not a native English speaker but I usually feel comfortable speaking or writing in English. I also have a linguistic background. But this morning I finished a task, wiped it from my whiteboard, and said to myself "That's one thing less to worry about". This raised two questions in my brain that was still running on high-energy consumption:

  • Is it "one thing less" or "one less thing"? My non-native gut tells me both are OK but is there a difference in meaning?
  • Why is it "less"? "A thing" is countable; there can be two things. On my to-do list, I have removed one item and still have 5 items left. So now there are fewer items on my list, not less. So why does "one less thing" feel so much more natural than "one fewer thing"?

Now off for coffee.

8
  • Syntactically, less can come before or after the noun (thing) that it modifies. But per this usage chart, most people still put the adjective before the noun, reflecting the "default" position of adjectives in English. But this chart shows higher "non-standard" BrE use. Sep 29, 2023 at 10:30
  • ...obviously "one less thing" feels so much more natural than "one fewer thing" because that's the idiomatic standard (so it's what we're used to hearing). Besides which, there can't be many people left who still care about the pedantic Victorian distinction between less and fewer - the latter of which continues to decline overall, anyway. Sep 29, 2023 at 10:34
  • @FF The English have an aversion to fewerers. Sep 29, 2023 at 11:19
  • 5
    My dudes, not a duplicate, or rather the main question is about 'thing less' vs 'less thing'. When in doubt, don't close (there's no doubt here, the main question is new).
    – Mitch
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:00
  • 1
    @Lawrence Thanks, fixed! Sep 29, 2023 at 17:46

1 Answer 1

2

I will venture an answer here which isn't based on frequency. No prescriptive grammar here: both forms are idiomatic.

When we take care of something, we can think to ourselves:

That is one thing less to worry about.

That is one less thing to worry about.

The word "that" doesn't refer to the task but to the set of things to worry about now that the task has been completed. One thing has been removed from the set of things to worry about. That set of tasks is less by one task; the set contains one thing less or one less thing. When the job is done, you wipe your hands off against each other, and say "That's that!"

There is greater emphasis on less in "one thing less" and greater emphasis on one in "one less thing". one thing less emphasizes the reduction of worry, and one less thing emphasizes the degree to which the worry has been reduced.

Compare "one more day" and "one day more".

Cratchit: Give them one more day to pay the rent.

Scrooge: No, I won't give them one day more.

Cratchit is beseeching Scrooge, emphasizing that it is only one additional day of grace, and Scrooge in his reply emphasizes that the grace has been extended as much as it will be.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.