fewer | less
According to prescriptivists, fewer is the comparative that should be used with count nouns, whereas less should only be used with mass nouns, e.g. I have fewer marbles, but you have less milk.

Some hard-liners claim that if you say that you have less marbles, you are committing a solecism.

How did this prescription come to be?


According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, the rule against this usage was probably invented and/or popularize in the 1770s by the primordial prescriptivist, Robert Baker, when he wrote:

"This Word [less] is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. No Fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but strictly proper."

Since then, according to Webster's, "Baker's preference has been generalized and elevated to an absolute status and his notice of contrary usage has been omitted." (To read the full Webster's usage entry, click here.)

The forbidden usage has a long history


(1) Alfred the Great (888 AD): "Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit yereccan mayon." (With less words or with more, whether we may prove it.)

(2) Godfrey Caxton (1481): "By cause he had so grete plente of men of hys owne countre, he called the fewer and lasse to counseyll of the noble men of the Cyte."

(3) Euphues Lyly (1579): "I thinke there are few Vniuersities that haue lesse faultes than Oxford, many that haue more."

(4) George Orwell (1944): "In the last analysis our only claim to victory is that if we win the war we shall tell less lies about it than our adversaries." (Tribune, 4 February 1944)


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