I’m seeing it more and more: “less” being used in places where “fewer” should be. Sure, I sort of expect it in tweets and in status lines on Facebook and MySpace. I can understand the occasional misuse in a hurriedly scribbled and unedited blog. But I’m seeing it throughout the journalistic Internet and in some magazines and newspaper articles as well as advertisements. I’m suspecting that we may have transitioned from misuse of “less” being bad grammar into the realm of it being an increasingly standard change of word use.
Now, I’m not one of these strict grammarians who haunt the halls of the inter-ether. I’ve long used “hopefully” to mean both “it is to be hoped that” as well as “full of hope”. Shoot, I’ve been advocating the addition of a new pronoun, so I’m clearly not some inflexible custodian of language.
I can certainly understand the change. The distinctions of when to use “less” and when to use “fewer” can be annoying and sometimes ambiguous. (The note card version of the use rule: use “fewer” for count & plural nouns; use “less” for mass & singular nouns; use “less” for time, money, and distance.) I suspect that it all started in grocery stores with their “15 items or less” signs at select registers. When I see those, in my head I hear the voices of many of my past English teachers yelling, “Fifteen items or fewer! Fewer! FEWER!” But to no avail.
In more recent times I suspect that math symbology has had more influence. When you have a strict character limit in a text message or a tweet, a user will often use the less-than sign, “<”, in place of both of the words “less” and “fewer”. Over time, it’s read as “less”, ignoring the distinction. And thus, through the internal linguistic voice, “less” is thought to be correct more and more while “fewer” is thought of less and less.
Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. The same information is conveyed. While a grammatical distinction maybe be lost, any missing information is made up for with context. It’s a small thing. As we get more economical with the language, it’s a change I could get used to if it sticks around for a while.
Even so, I’m sort of old-school. I had to learn when to use “fewer” and when to use “less”. I’ll likely continue to do so when I write. I find it not only a bit more accurate, but often more lyrical. Now…if we could do something about the lay/lie problem, I’d be happy.