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Difference between 'less' and 'fewer'
Thread poster: Jackie Bowman

Jackie Bowman

Local time: 02:06
Spanish to English
+ ...
Oct 15, 2006

In another forum thread (see http://www.proz.com/topic/56986 ), a discussion was temporarily diverted into a backwater, in which opinions were expressed about the difference between the English words ‘less’ and ‘fewer’.

This is not a continuation of that thread. It is a separate thread spurred by an opinion expressed in the first.

That opinion, literally, is as follows:

‘There she corrected your English. "Fewer" not" less"! But everyone knows that this is a typical "mistake" native speakers make. An educated native speaker should also know that "less" is now acceptable in informal/colloquial English and that, slowly but surely, it will probably replace "fewer" altogether. An educated native speaker who claims to be familiar with linguistics should also know that there is something beyond words and form --that something is called logical structure. Now, an educated native speaker should know that, for all intents and purposes, "less amateurs" has the value of "fewer amateurs." Especially if a fellow educated native speaker uses "less amateurs,'" what's the point of wasting your time, the other person's time, and everybody else's time pointing out such a minor thing?’

It is impossible to convey the full context of this assertion because it was made amid criticism of something I wrote (about something else). I made a lengthy response to the criticism, but that response was ‘hidden’ by site staff and subsequently it was eliminated. No member of this site ever saw my response, so it is appropriate at least to indicate here that other aspersions were cast.

That said, I’d be interested to hear the opinions of any professional writer/translator into English of the opinion quoted above.

Thanks.

JB

(Edited to make the HTML thread link in this message clickable)

[Edited at 2006-10-15 19:57]

[Edited at 2006-10-15 21:57]

[Edited at 2006-10-15 21:58]


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Kevin Kelly  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:06
Member (2005)
Russian to English
+ ...
The opinion of a professional translator... Oct 15, 2006

A lot of crap is becoming 'acceptable' in informal/colloquial English. Although I personally would not bother to correct anyone on this point, I personally firmly hold to a very simple rule: if you can count it, it's "fewer," if you can't, it's "less."

Period.

Anything else is simply poor English, regardless of who says it.


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xxxCMJ_Trans
Local time: 08:06
French to English
+ ...
and it's not the only example.... Oct 15, 2006

What about "between and among"? I was always taught that between was for two and among for anything in excess of two. But who gets it right these days?

Increasingly you hear those who say: between you and I. Am I the only one who finds this shocking?
Doubtless, I shall once again be classed as a dinosaur....


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Clare Barnes  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 08:06
Swedish to English
+ ...
Agreed Oct 15, 2006

...I'm with Kevin! (Though I may correct it, depending on circumstances).

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RobinB  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 08:06
German to English
Yeah, right Oct 15, 2006

If a translation came across my desk for revision (and I revise a lot, upwards of a million words a year), I would certainly correct "less amateurs" to "fewer amateurs", in the same way that I'd correct "less than one translator in ten" to "fewer than one translator in ten". I don't think the translator would make that mistake again.

Perhaps my standards are higher than most people - including translators - would prefer. Tough. I just think that when it comes to command of the language, including writing skills - grammar, punctuation, expression, etc. - translators have to be in the top 2% or so of their language community. This means that they have to be substantially better than the average educated speaker/writer of the language, and as far as English is concerned, yes, that damn well means knowing when to use "less" and when to use "fewer". The fact is that when we're translating, say, financial, legal, or technical texts, we don't write "informal" or "colloquial" English. Of course, if we're translating television dialogue, the register and language we use are different, but that's another matter entirely.


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Paul Merriam  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:06
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
My thoughts Oct 15, 2006

I see two issues being raised in the post you quoted:

a. Less vs. Fewer
The standard rule is that "fewer" goes with countable things and "less" with things that are measured in some other fashion. So I can send fewer documents to person A than to person B (e.g., 100 documents to person A and 200 documents to person B) or I could send less documentation to person A than to person B (e.g., 150 pages to person A and 300 pages to person B). It is entirely possible to send fewer documents but more documentation to person A (which would mean that the average document sent to A is longer).
Some things, such as produce, are sometimes counted and sometimes weighed (or perhaps the volume is measured). If someone talks about fewer apples, I understand the speaker to be discussing the results of counting them. If someone talks about less apples, I understand this to be a reference to the results of weighing them/measuring their volume.
Less, unlike fewer, can be used as an adverb. The first thing I thought of when I read "less amateurs" was "less amateurish" (which doesn't mean the same thing as "fewer amateurs"). I'm sure the rest of the sentence would have told me what was under discussion.
It sounds odd to me to talk about "less amateurs" or "less Big Macs sold in Nevada". I do see this more often when discussing large numbers, such as the Big Mac sales in Nevada or the number of amateur translators. Maybe that's because the Big Macs sold in Nevada in a year come across to some people as a big "glob" which is larger or smaller than the "glob" represented by last year's Big Mac sales.
Where I really see "less" replacing "fewer' is when discussing things that are typically discussed with fractional parts. I would say, for example, that the profits of XYZ Corp were 156 million dollars less last year rather than 156 million dollars fewer (and that's primarily because money is typically discussed with decimal points).

b. Diverting threads
I am aware that not everyone on this site is a native English speaker. (Believe me, I prefer it that way when it comes to discussing the meaning of German terms.) That being the case, it can reasonably be expected that someone will eventually make a mistake in English. (I imagine that has already happened, but I don't have time to check all the posts to determine whether it has or not.) I haven't done this in PROZ, but on various mailing lists I send messages off list to point out things such as "gay now tends to refer to sexuality rather than mood. I recommend you say someone is happy or bubbly if you want to refer to temperament". If I do it off list, it's less likely to come across as an ad hominem attack.


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xxxmediamatrix
Local time: 02:06
Spanish to English
+ ...
Our role in a world of falling standards ... Oct 15, 2006

Kevin Kelly wrote:

A lot of crap is becoming 'acceptable' in informal/colloquial English.


Absolutely right!

But our role - as translators, proofreaders and editors - is not to propagate the crap (at least, not out of context, as mentioned by RobinB) but, rather, to sustain and promote the correct use of our language for the efficient delivery of information.

It is useful, when writing anything intended for an international readership, to remember that the majority of your readers may be using English only as a 2nd, 3rd ... nth language. We owe it to them to conform to the rules of English they (perhaps) learnt in school, so they can concentrate on understanding the message without constantly tripping up on our sloppy grammar.

MediaMatrix

[Edited at 2006-10-15 20:08]


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RobinB  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 08:06
German to English
Are we missing something? Oct 15, 2006

The original message to which Kevin, Clare and I responded has now disappeared. Perhaps we could have some clarification as to whether the poster pulled it or it was removed by a moderator or ProZ staff. The original message itself wasn't libellous, merely acceptably contentious.

OK, it's back....


[Edited at 2006-10-15 20:28]


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gianfranco  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 03:06
Member (2001)
English to Italian
+ ...
Clarification Oct 15, 2006

RobinB wrote:
The original message to which Kevin, Clare and I responded has now disappeared. Perhaps we could have some clarification as to whether the poster pulled it or it was removed by a moderator or ProZ staff. The original message itself wasn't libellous, merely acceptably contentious.


The initial message was temporarily not visible because the author edited it.
As it happens for all postings by non members or by members whose identity is not verified, editing a posting causes it to be subject to a new vetting by a moderator.
As it is Sunday and the moderator of this specific forum may not be around, I made it visible again.

To Jack:
To make the link clickable (http://www.proz.com/topic/56986?start=15&float=)
separate it from the parenthesis, also the bit "?start=15&float=" is not necessary
just write (see http://www.proz.com/topic/56986 )
and it will work.


bye
Gianfranco

[Edited at 2006-10-15 20:27]


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RobinB  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 08:06
German to English
Real translators ... Oct 15, 2006

mediamatrix wrote: sustain and promote the correct use of our language for the efficient delivery of information.


... are language geeks. Nothing to be ashamed of, either. Real translators are bad insurance risks, too. You're driving down the Autobahn at 200 kph and suddenly turn your head to look at a large advertising hoarding, muttering "Hey, there shouldn't be a comma thaaaaaaagh".


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Clare Barnes  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 08:06
Swedish to English
+ ...
Thank you Robin Oct 15, 2006

...okay, off topic, but Robin nearly made me choke on my cheese and pickled onions. Thank you!!!

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RobinB  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 08:06
German to English
Thanks Oct 15, 2006

gianfranco wrote: As it is Sunday and the moderator of this specific forum may not be around, I made it visible again.


Thanks for jumping in there!
Robin


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Jande  Identity Verified
Australia
Local time: 16:06
Danish to English
+ ...
Fewer and less are not the same as mindre and faerre Oct 15, 2006

It's less than one translater in ten, not fewer.

Fewer has connections with a few, whereas less than can mean in this context 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1

Fewer than could mean in this context 7, 6, 5, 4, or 3, but the more you think about it the less meaning it has.


From www.dictionary.com

Fewer:
quantifier meaning a smaller number of; "fewer birds came this year"; "the birds are fewer this year"; "fewer trains were late"

Less:
4. smaller in size, amount, degree, etc.; not so large, great, or much: less money; less speed.
5. lower in consideration, rank, or importance: no less a person than the manager.
6. fewer: less than a dozen.

So when you talk about rank, or something less than something else of a number then you use less. When you talk about something where there is a connection with "few" or where no rank is considered you can use fewer.

It just doesn't work that fewer is used with quantifiable items and less with non quantifable. Sorry but it's the non-natives who are mistaken, not the natives in this case.

I don't know about German, but the Danish words (and they are often similar to German) mindre and faerre are not the same as fewer and less.


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Jande  Identity Verified
Australia
Local time: 16:06
Danish to English
+ ...
between you and me Oct 15, 2006

In my opinion the term is between you and me. There are also other common related sayings:

Between you (and) me and the fencepost.

can also be said e.g.

Between you (and) me and the dog/God etc.

It means the words that are said are between us.

Among you and I/me, just isn't right. That would then mean the words would be surrounding us and that is precisely what we are trying to avoid.

I still don't understand what the problem is with between and among with this saying?


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Jande  Identity Verified
Australia
Local time: 16:06
Danish to English
+ ...
I found this further down Oct 16, 2006

from www.dictionary.com

—Usage note
Even though less has been used before plural nouns (less words; less men) since the time of King Alfred, many modern usage guides say that only fewer can be used in such contexts. Less, they say, should modify singular mass nouns (less sugar; less money) and singular abstract nouns (less honesty; less love). It should modify plural nouns only when they suggest combination into a unit, group, or aggregation: less than $50 (a sum of money); less than three miles (a unit of distance). With plural nouns specifying individuals or readily distinguishable units, the guides say that fewer is the only proper choice: fewer words; fewer men; no fewer than 31 of the 50 states. Modern standard English practice does not reflect this distinction. When followed by than, less occurs at least as often as fewer in modifying plural nouns that are not units or groups, and the use of less in this construction is increasing in all varieties of English: less than eight million people; no less than 31 of the 50 states. When not followed by than, fewer is more frequent only in formal written English, and in this construction also the use of less is increasing: This year we have had less crimes, less accidents, and less fires than in any of the last five years.

Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

I think that just about clears it up for me.


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