Grammar by Ear: Less vs Fewer

Over the years I’ve been shaped as a writer by instructors and professors. I’ve spent time memorizing rules of grammar and literary techniques. As important as this formal study has been, I believe the greatest influence on my writing has been my lifelong reading addiction. Frequent exposure to written words created a rather abstract concept of proper writing that resides in my head.

On this blog I use a conversational, informal style of writing. Parentheses and commas are common. I begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions; I end sentences with prepositions; I do not have an aversion to fragments.

My primary editor is a mental alarm that sounds when a word, sentence, or paragraph violates my concept of writing. Something sounds wrong. At times the source of the alarm is evident, other times I need to figure out what is causing the discord. When my mind and ear disagree a reckoning follows.

Yesterday one of those disagreements occurred. It centered on the usage of less and fewer. My blog post from yesterday is titled: One Less Secret in the World. I wrestled with that phrase. I wrote it many different ways. My ear demanded it be rendered “One Less Secret in the World.” My mind recalled rules about the usage of less and fewer, resulting in a request for “One Secret Fewer in the World.” In the end my ear won the debate by pointing out page 594 in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1995). While discussing usage of the word less the book states:

“And of course it follows one:

. . . one less scholarship — Les A. Schneider, letter to the editor, Change, September 1971

One less reporter — Don Cook, Saturday Rev., 24 June 1978

Quoting Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English usage is more effective than my first response: “One Secret Fewer in the World” just sounds awkward and pretentious.


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