A grammar puzzle

English grammar can be strange. Sometimes it seems to have a rule of breaking its own rules, as it were. An example that occurred to me yesterday involves the words less and fewer. I’ll tell you about it shortly, but I need some background first.

A rule

First consider the basic rule about these words:

  • fewer refers to things you can count
  • less refers to things you can’t count: continuous quantities.

So, for example, if you drop one of your plates on the floor while washing up and it shatters, you have fewer plates than you did before. But if you eat a larger piece of cake than planned, there is less cake left than there would have been otherwise.

Some exceptions which aren’t

This seems like a clear enough rule, and it’s one which we mostly adhere to in written English. Fowler [1], though, mentions a few apparent exceptions, such as

  • It is less than seventy miles to London
  • [It] costs less than fifty pounds
  • We have had reliable temperature records for less than 150 years
  • [Please write] fifty words or less.

On closer inspection, the first three of these turn out to fit the rule.Try using fewer in those examples: It is fewer than seventy miles to London sounds (at least to me) as though the distance to London has to be a whole number of miles. But it isn’t: distance is a continuous quantity, which just happens to be measured in miles. We aren’t counting the number of miles, but measuring the distance.

Similarly the time since temperature records began is unlikely to be a whole number of years, and we’re measuring the time, not counting individual years; less than 150 years really means “A time whose length is shorter than 150 years”.

The money example seems slightly different, since money does come in distinct steps. However, the steps are pence, not pounds. Normally you won’t get the correct price of something by counting out a number of pounds, and (at least to my ears) fewer than fifty pounds sounds like doing precisely that. We generally think of money as a thing which we have a lot or a little of, not as a pile of coins which we have many or few of. So it still fits the rule.

Fifty words or less is interesting because, as Fowler points out, it is standard wording for English exams. A whole number of words is definitely what’s wanted. But the emphasis is still really on the length of the passage to be written, not on the individual words.

As a borderline case, Fowler  gives having had in his house at one time no less than five Nobel Prize winners. I’m less happy about that one: I think that in written English it should definitely be no fewer than five of them. Nobel Prize winners seem to me to be something that you definitely have a whole number of, not something that you measure out. On the other hand, maybe when you have a crowd of Nobel Prize winners your attention is on the size of the crowd rather than on the individuals. But I somehow doubt it. Nevertheless, these examples do in fact fit the rule: fewer for things you count, and less for things you don’t. I’m merely a little dubious about the idea of not counting Nobel Prize winners.

Speaking colloquially

I’ve not studied the speech aspect of this, but it’s clear that many (maybe most) people often don’t adhere to this rule when speaking. They say things like I’ve got far less things to do today and might treat less things to doless work to do and less to do as equivalents which are all variants on the idea of doing less.

Are they speaking “incorrectly”, or are they using a different set of rules of “correctness” for speech? I’m not sure: to me this one does feel more like not noticing a word that doesn’t fit properly, thereby getting it wrong,  than like using a different rule  to determine what fits. But at the same time, carefully using fewer can feel artificial at times, creating too much formality, especially in situations where it’s harder to say or when speaking to someone who doesn’t use it. Far fewer feels more awkward to the mouth than far less, for example, and I think there probably is a “rule” in speech  of using phrases which have a smoother sound to them. Maybe sounding nice sometimes takes precedence over “correctness”. But whether it actually sounds nice to the listener will of course depend on how alert they are to the grammatical structures, how bothered they are by it, and whether it affects clarity of meaning.

The puzzle

OK, that was rather a lot of background. Here is the puzzle, though it may be that I just hear things a particular way which other people don’t share. I’d like to hear other people’s opinions on it. It concerns the situation where, say, someone has some things to  do and then does one of them. The situation afterwards can be expressed in a variety of ways. Some feel more natural than others; some seem more grammatically logical than others. This is how it looks to me, though it may be different for someone else:

Acceptable
  • I now have fewer things to do.
  • I now have one less thing to do.
  • I now have one thing less to do.

These all feel to me like natural ways of saying it.

Less acceptable
  • I now have less things to do.
  • I now have one thing fewer to do.

Less things to do feels natural as a spoken expression, but either wrong or borderline as a written one. One thing fewer is verging on awkward: not exactly wrong, but not a very natural expression either.

Unacceptable (to my ears)
  • I now have one fewer thing to do. (No no no! One less!)
  • I now have one fewer things to do. (“One things?!”)

And there’s the puzzle.

  • How many things do you have to do? Fewer. You have  fewer things to do.
  • How many fewer? One. You have one fewer things to do.

And yet, far from being the correct expression, one fewer things to do is the most unambiguously wrong one of the lot.

On the other hand, if two tasks are done instead of one,  fewer becomes OK again: I have two fewer things to do.

At first sight, this is all very puzzling. The questions are ones like these:

  • Why can I have fewer things to do but not one fewer things to do?
  • Why can I have  one less thing to do but not one fewer thing to do?
  • Given that the things to do are ticked off my list one by one, why does less rather than fewer end up being the apparently correct word?

Attempt at an answer

The problem with the two versions I listed as “unacceptable” seems to be  that however much we may want them to be logical, they refuse to read that way.  One fewer things to do insists on reading as though fewer qualifies one things, so singular and plural are mismatched. One fewer thing to do tries to make fewer thing into a valid element. But we know that fewer applies to more than one of something. What’s rather strange, though, is that one less thing to do doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problem, even though less thing isn’t really any more valid an element than fewer thing. Maybe it’s chosen simply because it doesn’t leap out quite so blatantly.

(By the way, I really wish I had a quick way to draw some sentence diagrams here.)

From my list, I think the three “least incorrect” versions are

  • I now have one less thing to do.
  • I now have one thing less to do.
  • I now have one thing fewer to do.

In all cases, there is one thing which has already been done. This leaves less/fewer [things] to  do. But if we test the structure by removing fewer or less from the sentences, we see that they are all versions of I now have one thing to do, which isn’t the situation. The one thing is precisely the one which doesn’t need doing.

So the grammar is confusing because it tries to have its cake and eat it. Structurally, less to do and fewer to do are firmly attached to the one thing. But in their actual meaning, they refer to something entirely different: all the other things to do, which are nowhere to be seen in any of the three sentences. They’re trying to refer to two conflicting things at once.

Finally, if we instead remove the one thing from the three sentences to see what structure is left, we end up with

  • I now have less to do
  • I now have fewer [things] to do.

If the most natural phrase were I now have one thing less to do, this would give us our answer: it means “I now have less to do, by one thing”. Interpreted this way, the sentence is grammatically correct and self-contained. However, I think the most natural one is one less thing, not one thing less, so either some illogicality remains, or something unidentified is still going on.

I would welcome any thoughts on this! In particular, on whether my feeling as to the relative acceptability of the different constructions coincides with yours. There may be regional or international differences, or you might simply have gravitated towards a different usage from mine.

Note

[1] R W Burchfield (ed.). The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 295. Back

4 responses to “A grammar puzzle

  1. Brenda Van Wie

    I would say:
    “I now have less to do” OR “I now have fewer things to do.” I would not use the word “things” if I used “less” Either word can be used, but using less is just a degree of how much you have to do. Using “fewer things” is more about number of things being completed. I do think a lot of it is now what “sounds” correct. There are just certain times when one use sounds better than the other one based on our social use of language….which isn’t always what is best for written use of language….unless you are meaning the written to sound like the social. I see how this topic can go around and around!

    • And do you use “That’s one less thing to do!” or some equivalent? I think it’s a universally-used saying here, which is why I found myself puzzling about how its grammar works.

  2. If you’re sticking to the original definitions of the phrases than the only acceptable phrase would have to be: “I have one less thing to do.”

    Here’s my logic: It may be true that you have a list of tasks and you check them off one by one, but in the grand scheme of life, this will not be the end of ANY tasks you must accomplish your whole life long. Therefore: human effort is as endless as distance is unmeasurable. You only own so many plates, but who’s to say how many tasks you’ll accomplish (or not) in your lifetime?

    My two cents.

  3. I actually think “one fewer things to do” makes perfect sense.

    One can say “I have fewer things to do” and from that one has “one fewer” and thus from this “I have one fewer things to do.”

    It makes better sense if we consider the “one fewer” sort of separate – perhaps with parentheses. e.g. “I have (one fewer) things to do.” Not to say the brackets are needed, just that it helps to illustrate my point. It still sounds a bit awkward so I’ll stick to your “I now have one thing fewer to do” and consider that the “most correct” one and use it from now on.

    Thanks for the post!

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