Counting and Measuring

rogersgeorge on February 10th, 2017

The words “less” and “fewer” cause problems for some people. I wrote a post about that problem recently. The gist is that when you’re counting something, use “fewer,” and when you’re measuring, use “less.” If you’re not comparing, the words are “number” and “amount.” Here’s an article with a tricky usage:

Deep ocean sediment cores from this period also indicate no changes in glacial activity, based on the amount of oxygen isotopes in the cores.

Isotopes are discrete things that you can count, right? Oxygen has about a dozen of them, from 12O to 24O, (mainly 16O) and molecules and atoms are discrete things, too, right? Why is this sentence correct? Because the authors (whom I believe are Associate Professor of geophysics, University of Leeds, and Associate Professor of Geophysics, University of Leeds) are measuring the size of the collection of these isotopes as if they were a mass, not individual atoms. If the authors wanted to point out that they were distinguishing among the isotopes, they could say “amounts of isotopes.”

Lesson: be alert to what you are saying when you write. These guys did it right.

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Another Lesson about Less and Fewer

rogersgeorge on April 15th, 2016

You might remember an old post about less and few. (I can’t find it right now, or I’d make a link to it.) The gist of the post is that you use few and fewer with things you count, and less with things you measure. Someone pointed out that you use fewer with plurals, and less with singulars. This latter rule works most of the time, but it stumbles on some things that you measure, but you name them as if you were counting. Time falls into this category. You correctly say

I have less time to finish my assignment; about 30 minutes less than I had before.

Here’s an example where it’s correct to use fewer with a singular, though I think you could get away with using less. This is from one of my favorite columnists, Mike Peterson, he of Comic Strip of the Day.

It’s still a good cartoon, however, because, each time a PP clinic closes, that’s one fewer place for women who do seek a safe abortion.

So it’s counting, but only one thing. It qualifies under both rules. You pays your money and you takes your pick.