I can’t tell you how often I hear people say something like this: “The Jazz would win more games if they would commit less turnovers.” Ouch. And I’m not hurting over the Jazz’s unnecessary losses here. I’m smarting over lazy language usage. In short, I’d have less pain if more people would make fewer usage mistakes.
The question here is, what is the opposite of “more”? And the correct answer, of course, is the correct answer to most questions: It depends. If you are talking about something you can count, like turnovers or rutabagas or bunions or earthworms, use “fewer.” If you are talking about something that is a collective singular or a nebulous concept, such as snow or ambiguity or time or, well, pain, then you should use “less.” Thus:
I have less patience than I did when I was 30.
Sabrina eats fewer calories than she used to.
Jim owes me less money than he did yesterday.
Barbie sells fewer houses than Ken does.
Jerry Sloan has less stress than he did two years ago.
Karl Malone should refer to himself in the third person fewer than 10 times in one interview.
Deron Williams now makes more money and plays in less obscurity, but he gets fewer wins than he did when he played in Utah.
Well, you get the idea. If you can count it, use “fewer.” If you can’t, use “less.” And if you aren’t sure (The Pacific Ocean has fewer/less salmon than it did 10 years ago), then punt (The Pacific Ocean had more salmon 10 years ago than it does now).
Roger Terry has been a professional editor for 25 years, has written five books (three fiction, two nonfiction) and numerous articles, essays, short stories, book reviews and newspaper columns. He is a sports fanatic and an unrepentant chocoholic.