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"Keep The Customers Satisfied"
By Simon & Garfunkle
Poor Yoda (aka Ben Yagoda) bewails the plight of keepin' the customer(s) satisfied with Yoda's distinction between less and fewer. This blogger whether the customers are students or blog-readers rises to Simon & Garfunkle's ode to the "same old story." 'Tis an impossible task to keep the customers satisfied for a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, or always. If this is (fair & balanced) whining, so be it.
Less Is More Better
By Ben Yagoda
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
The email came in with the heading “Ben! How could you!?” The message read, in its entirety:
How Not to Write Bad, page 26: “As for state names, never abbreviate when they’re four letters or less, or when they’re standing alone.”
Less? You mean fewer, right? Or did the rules change? Please advise.
(Before proceeding to the question, I’ll note that, unsurprisingly, my correspondent misstated the title of my book, which is How to Not Write Bad .)
As virtually everyone reading this well knows, generally accepted usage dictates that one use fewer before plural nouns (“fewer dollars”) and less before a collective noun (“less money”). But it’s complicated.
Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), is all about the less/fewer distinction, until he starts to give exceptions, for instance, “when count nouns essentially function as mass nouns because the units are so very numerous or they aren’t considered discrete items.... Hence less is used correctly with time and money: one isn’t, ordinarily, talking about the number of years or the number of dollars but rather the amount of time or the amount of money.” He approvingly quotes a newspaper article: “On that mantra, Larry Clark has built a $45 million-a-year company in less than five years.”
He also favors “less than 10 percent of the homeowners were there” because “a percentage is a collective mass noun … and thus requires less.” And to Garner there’s no question that Hal David’s lyric “One Less Bell to Answer” is absolutely correct. He unapprovingly quotes a counterexample—”Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham... has one fewer hat than we said the other day”—and chalks the “awkward and unidiomatic” phrasing up to hypercorrection.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, characteristically, takes a broader view, flat-out stating that preceding count-noun plurals with either less or fewer is both grammatically correct and consistent with “the actual usage of the past thousand years or so.” It identifies the first authority to (modestly) suggest that fewer might be preferable as Robert Baker, writing in 1770. Though Baker’s suggestion has regrettably been turned into an “inviolable rule” among language mavens, the dictionary notes the particular cases ( in addition to when it follows “one”) where it is and should be violated:
(I would add an exception with ages: It would be absurd for me to say, “Both my daughters are fewer than thirty.”)
Finally, I’m happy to say, MWDEU agrees with me. Referring to signs saying “Twelve items or ____” and contests calling for an answer in “twenty-five words or ____,” it states, simply, “Less is the choice in this construction.”
It doesn’t say why. Here is my explanation. In the above sentences, whether less or fewer ends them, something is elided, or left out. That is, the sign is either saying, “Twelve items or fewer [than twelve items]” or “Twelve items or less [than that].” They’re both correct, but to my ears the latter is far preferable.
When my email correspondent reads this, I guess I will have one less fan. Ω
[Ben Yagoda (B.A. Yale, M.A. University of Pennsylvania) is the author of Memoir: A History (2009), About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), and Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) and the coeditor (with Kevin Kerrane) of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (1997). He has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to more than fifty national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. Yagoda has been a Lingua Franca blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education since August 2011.) He is a professor of journalism and literary non-fiction in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.]
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