or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, July 22, 2005

More or Less

I just ran across what I think is an exception to an otherwise iron-clad rule and a favourite grammar snark.

Any serious grammar nit-picker has been severely irritated by the apparently inevitable sign at the local supermarket that reads "12 ITEMS OR LESS". "Fewer, dammit! It's fewer, not less!", we seethe. And this is true because "fewer" refers to number and "less" refers to volume. Fewer rocks, but less sand. It's a hard-and-fast rule: it's universally true.


Here's the relevant part of a sentence from Slate.com:

"Roberts has been the nominee for less than 24 hours..."

Now, didn't I just say that "fewer" invariably referred to something that was enumerable? And doesn't that sentence use "less" in that exact context? And isn't that therefore wrong?

Yes and no. The reason I think this is an exception to the rule is that "24 hours" is just another way of saying "a day". "Fewer than 24 hours" makes it sound as if every single hour were somehow relevant, which isn't the case: in replacing "a day" with "24 hours", the writer is merely trying to play up the fact that it's hardly any time at all by stressing a small number rather than a uniform chunk of time. If I had been editing that piece, I would have left it exactly as it is.

Besides, "fewer than 24 hours" in this case sounds more than a little fussy and pedantic. God knows I have a strong strain of the fussy pedant, but even I have my limits.


Blogger Tony Pius said...

I think the reason that this construction fails to set off the alarm bells is that hours, in this context, are not atomic. So we have:

"Roberts has been the nominee for less than 24 hours..."

but we would also have

"Roberts took fewer than 24 hours last semester."

Similarly, if I have a 5-gallon bucket in the backyard, but it hasn't rained enough to fill it up, I have "less than five gallons of water." But if I'm at the supermarket and buy only three one-gallon jugs of Aquafina, I have "fewer than five gallons of water."

That's the way I'd rule if it were to come across my editing desk. But that's just me.

Friday, July 22, 2005 4:40:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I sort of think "hours" is atomic (nice term) no matter what you do, to be honest. The "gallons of water" thing is a very different case, because in the first case you're talking about "a container holding a certain number of gallons", in which case "less than five gallons" is clearly correct, and in the second you're talking about "individual containers, each holding a gallon, each of which is referred to as a gallon", which is a somewhat different meaning for "gallon" and therefore requires "fewer" because it is, as you say, atomic. But hours are hours--unless, I suppose, you consider "day" to be "a container holding twenty-four hours". Which, now that I think about it, was pretty much exactly the point I was originally making, wasn't it?

So you're right.

Friday, July 22, 2005 9:57:00 PM  

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