‘Fewer’ vs. ‘less: which is correct?

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Have you ever met a language Nazi?  Oh, I think you have – I’m sure you know what I mean.  By ‘language Nazi’ I mean someone who knows perhaps just a little bit more than you about spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, verse formats or just the English language in general.  And boy, do they let you know about it?

They don’t just let you know about it when it’s important or relevant to the topic under discussion.  When your business website has an embarrassing glitch in punctuation or spelling, for example.  Or when you were talking about your novel and someone tactfully pointed out that if you fling apostrophes around carelessly in your manuscript (the way you do in your forum posts) then editors might have a problem with that.

No!  They will ram the subject into any old conversation and truly glory in any opportunity to ram home their linguistic superiority!  Which is pretty sad when you think about it.  Anyone who triumphs over the fact that they know where to correctly place an exclamation point or parenthesis, or can spell words of eight syllables without consulting a dictionary, cannot have very much in their lives to feel good about.

And normally I feel as much pity for these individuals as any sensible person.  Except for when I’m one of them, of course.

Because we all have an exception, don’t we?  Just one thing – regarding the English language, or perhaps something else entirely – that acts on us much like nails screeching and scrawling down a blackboard.  (Perhaps clichés are yours.  Tough.)  

In my own case, the use (or misuse, should I say) of the words ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ is one of the main triggers that can cause me to froth at the mouth and run amok.  Get this wrong, say one when you actually mean the other, and the lecturing tirade I’ll be spewing at you for the next twenty minutes will make you wish you hadn’t even the faintest acquaintance with the English language – that you were Croat, or French, or from Venus in preference.

So what’s the difference, and how should you correctly use these words?  Well, when you say ‘less’ of something, you should be referring to something that comes as a  continuous quantitiy.  What does that mean?  It means something that you can’t count out one by one, like sand, or flour, or water.  (Well, I suppose you could count out sand grain by grain, or flour speck by speck, but you aren’t stupid and you get the idea.)

On the other hand, ‘fewer’ is usually used in reference to discrete quantities.  As might be expected, this means quantities that can be counted out, one by one.  Examples might be apples, or houses, or human beings.  There may be finer points of usage than this, but that’s my understanding of the subject.

So there you have it, and now you have no excuses.  Be careful out there – and especially careful with how you use and abuse the English language!

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