Saturday, December 22, 2007

Less Versus Fewer; Much Versus Many

Less, fewer, much, and many vaguely relate to each other in that the mistake people make in using them lies in not knowing how to count.

Actually, people who make errors with these words don't realize that you can only have fewer of how many items you had if you can count them. It may be a theoretical count, like the census that tells you “how many” people live in your city and if there are fewer residents than the decade before, but you could count them all of you really felt the need.

Less and how much are reserved for things that you cannot count. You may be able to count parts of the whole, as with money, but what people mean when they ask how much money you make is that they are nosy how much money you made of the total in an undefined set.

It could be the percent of the gross profits of your corporation or of the gross national product. I doubt they know what they mean any more than you. That's why you can't count how much money you make.

You also can't count things like juice and pie. You can ask how many glasses of juice my group would care to drink, or how many slices of pie we'll eat. I may need to ask you how much juice is left and if you have less pie than you did when I made the reservation this morning.

I find it unlikely that you would pour out the juice into individual glasses to tell me an exact number, how "many" juice you have. If you put me on hold to do so, I would cancel the reservation anyway because I'm not drinking juice that's been sitting in a glass on your counter for four hours.

I seem to have wandered a bit far afield, here. What I meant to say here was simply that many and fewer work with countable nouns only. Much and less are used with everything else. I have less focus than usual today. I blame that on how many cups of coffee I've left in the pot. You can't have too much caffeine, after all.