Thursday, January 10, 2013

One fewer non-rule to follow

Though I don't frequent Starbucks, I very much enjoyed S.A.P.'s post about "Starbucks names," as did most of the many commenters. (A couple of cranks took the trouble to object that the topic was too trivial for The Economist's blog. Some people just aren't happy till they let you know they're unhappy.)

But I think S.A.P. (or "Sam," to Starbucks) commits an increasingly frequent hypercorrection when he says, "My Starbucks name just gives me a way to blend into bland normalcy: it's one fewer thing different about me."

Yes, one thing is definitely a countable. But "one less" is the preferred idiom, as Google's Ngram Viewer (insert cautionary language here) shows: 

Considering the reams of usage commentary (some simple-minded, some more accurate) on the less vs. fewer distinction, there's surprisingly little mention of the one less/one fewer issue. MWDEU, which goes on for nearly five columns about less and fewer, says simply, of less: "And of course it follows one," giving as examples "one less scholarship" and "one less reporter." 

Theodore Bernstein, in "The Careful Writer" (1965), suggests a possible rationale for this fewer avoidance:
There is one oddity about fewer: Whereas it is fine to write, "The Liberals won
three fewer seats than in the previous election," you run into idiom trouble if you reduce the number to one; you cannot say "one fewer seats," nor can you say "one fewer seat." The only escape hatch is "one seat fewer."
(He goes on to point out what less/fewer purists often ignore: that even countables may, in a given context, be considered as quantities rather than numbers. "For instance: 'Not many of these buildings are fewer than thirty years old.’ The thought here is not of individual years but of a period of time; therefore, less.")

And since the commentary is so scant, I'll mention that in Johnson's 1755 Dictionary, "one" is defined as "less than two" (not "fewer than two," though he's obviously referring to whole numbers).  

I don't think I ever heard the "one less" rule during my editing years, but if others did -- or if you have further citations on it -- I'd be interested to know the where and when. Google Books doesn't turn up anything, but it's not working well lately, so that non-result can't be trusted.

Update: I forgot I had some earlier research on this, from my column in the Globe in 2009 (when Google Books was more responsive):
Earlier generations of usage critics, however, certainly used "one less," even if they subscribed to the traditional less-fewer line. Here's John Russell Bartlett, from his "Dictionary of Americanisms" (1848): "To play dummy, is to play with one person less than the requisite number." Joseph Fitzgerald, in "Word and Phrase" (1901): "Total for these three languages 57, or one less [vowel sound] than for English alone." H.L. Mencken in the American Mercury (1925): "There is one hypocrite less in London today."
[Bryan] Garner notes that in nearly one-fourth of his current examples, "writers use one fewer, an awkward and unidiomatic phrase," where one less would be better. "One can't help thinking that this is a kind of hypercorrection induced by underanalysis of the less-fewer distinction," he says. That is: it's a mistake caused by simple-minded application of a rule that isn't really so simple.


Bryan M. White said...

"Some people just aren't happy till they let you know they're unhappy."

If the internet had a title screen, THIS would be the subtitle.

Jonathon Owen said...

Most people treat "one less" as an exception to the rule that "less" is used with mass nouns and "fewer" with count nouns. Garner is the only person I've read who gets it right: it's really a plural/singular distinction. It just so happens that almost all mass nouns are singular. said...

The number 5.8 is less than the number 6. How much less? It is 0.2 less.

The number 19 is less than the number 20. How much less? It is 1 less.

Gregory Lee said...

One and two are less than one and two, although one and two is not less than one or two.

David said...

This is from the Gregg Reference Manual (Wm Sabin), 9th edition:

The expression "less than" (rather than "fewer than") precedes plural nouns referring to time, distance, amounts of money, and quantities.

less than ten years ago
less than six miles away
less than $1 million
less than 20 pounds

Formal: fewer than 60 people
Colloquial: less than 60 people

The expression "or less" (rather than "or fewer") is used after a number of items.

in 100 words or less
in groups of six people or less.

Gregory Lee said...

I see you've given me 13 donuts. I'll take one fewer of those, please.

This example is to make the point that the difficulty with "one fewer" is not a failure of number agreement between "one" and "fewer", but a problem with the agreement between "fewer" and the following quantified noun (if any).

(Personally, I have no problem with "one fewer donuts", but I gather that others don't like this combination. Maybe it's a failure of agreement between "one" and "donuts"??)