Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

One fewer mistake

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 19, 2008

The University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability has an environmental challenge called One Less Car. The details of the challenge are not so important, but its name is useful for a lesson in another silly grammar rule. Someone mentioned to me recently that it should be called “One Fewer Car” in accordance with the AP Stylebook.

Although the name might sound completely legit, it breaks the fewer versus less rule. The rule states that you should use “fewer” when you can count the items you’re describing and “less” when you can’t. In this example, you can count cars, so “fewer” would be the correct word to use. The easiest way I remember it is with the phrase “less gas, fewer gallons,” which I have posted next to my desk.  It’s a mantra of sorts.

So I think the less/fewer rule is a nice guideline for news copy. I don’t love it, but I don’t mind it. I also don’t think that it should be applied to catchy slogans that would sound ridiculous otherwise. While “One Fewer Car” doesn’t sound totally awful, “One Less Car” has a much nicer ring to it. And take the recent Gardasil vaccine campaign. Its slogan is “One Less,” as in, one less woman to be diagnosed with cervical cancer. This phrase wouldn’t have quite as much punch it if were “One Fewer.”

I’ve heard people even apply the rule to the 10 items or less line at the grocery store. Bill Walsh wrote a mini-rant about people being sticklers over the wording of the sign. I believe his argument, though, was that the sign could be taken to mean “10 items or less [than that],” in which case the use of “less” would be appropriate.

Whether it’s grammatically correct is beside the point. What’s more important here, again, is the way people use it. The fact that “less” has been used in the grocery store line for so many years makes its use in that context perfectly acceptable, in my opinion. The reason “10 items of fewer” sounds awful to the ear is that you’re so unaccustomed to hearing it.  Someone who injects the word “fewer” into phrases and slogans where it’s technically correct but uncommon nonetheless sounds out of touch.

So in your run-of-the-mill story about attendance at a county fair, saying, “Fewer people attended this year,” is perfectly acceptable. But trying to pass off a phrase as ungrammatical when it simply sounds nicer that way is just plain silly.

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