Fewer Hassles Means Less Hassle

There are two types of people standing in a supermarket check-out line; those who use the “10 items or less” aisle and worry about how many things they have in their trolley [1] ,and those who want to use a thick red marker pen to scribble out the word “less” and write “FEWER!!!” in large, capital letters.

We need fewer mistakes

We need fewer mistakes: CC license from Flicker

As a long-time sufferer of prescriptivism – that terrible affliction where you can’t help feeling that there is a right and a wrong way to use a language – I have to admit I’m getting better at ignoring such things and adopt a Zen-like calm at the checkout, murmuring internal mantras to keep my blood pressure down. The trick is to take a little time analyzing just why “10 items or less” can be seen as “wrong.” And it’s all to do with the nature of nouns and counting.

When it comes to nouns, one of the ways to categorize them is as either count or mass nouns. A count noun is one that – not surprisingly – can be counted. You can have one button or two buttons; one banana or three bananas; one mongoose or 24 mongeese. OK, so that last one was a lie – it’s mongooses[2]. The point is that the noun in question can be viewed as a discrete item and quantified.

Mongooses - or mongees? CC license from Arpingstone.

Mongooses – or mongees? CC license from Arpingstone.

The contrary is a mass noun, which refers to a thing that can vary in terms of quantity but you can’t really count it. You can have salt and then more salt; water and then more water; fun and then more fun.

Morphologically, count nouns typically add an –s to the end of the singular form of the noun whereas mass nouns stay the same. Some count nouns have irregular plural forms – hence the goose/geese distinction mentioned as few sentences ago – and a few don’t change at all, such as sheep, deer, and moose.

Now, just to make things more interesting, some adjectives that are used to pre-modify nouns don’t work with both mass and count nouns. This is the case with fewer and less, where the former works better with count nouns whereas the latter typically partners up with mass nouns. So you have less salt, less water, and less fun but fewer buttons, bananas, and mongooses.

Mass nouns can, in some situations, defect to the count noun camp, usually when the mass is in some way chopped up into smaller pieces. So if you have water poured into glasses, it’s perfectly normal to say things like, “There were several waters in the table.” Similarly, when visiting a bakery you might say, “There were lots of breads to choose from.” But in both these cases, the “countiness” is due to the fact that the mass has been artificially quantized.

Unlike words such as bread and water, which seem to spend most of their lives being mass nouns, or dog and cat, which sit squarely in the count corner, words like hassle appear to swing happily back and forth between mass and count. Thus having fewer hassles can, indeed, lead to less hassle. More specifically, the first hassle is in its count form whereas the second is the uncountable mass version. If you think about it, you can talk about having “lots of hassles” because you can in theory count each individual hassle, but if you’re talking about hassle in general, it’s a more amorphous mass of “hassle” so uncountable. If I suggested replacing that second hassle with harassment, the mass element becomes more obvious.

Now you get an idea why we poor prescriptivists suffer from bouts of toe curling when seeing “10 items or less.” It’s that the noun items is clearly a count noun (it takes an -s plural and is preceded by a number) but less is reserved for mass nouns.

[1] There’s a sub-group here of sociopaths who either cannot count and so trundle through with a cart positively overflowing with stuff, or are so egocentric and narcissistic that they couldn’t care less how many items they have – they just want the shortest and faster line so they can get on with their terribly important and self-centered lives. In the world of self-carry laws for gun owners, it’s a surprise that there are so few gunfights at the Walmart corral.

[2] We like to think that the average Speech Dudes reader is not, in fact, average, and is more curious than a clowder of cats, and as such, may ask the obvious question as to precisely why isn’t the plural of mongoose mongeese? It’s because the word mongoose doesn’t actually have anything to do with the word goose in the first place. If actually derives from the Portuguese mangus, which in turn is from the Indian dialect Marathi word mungus, and then ultimately the Dravidian language Telagu and the word mungisa. Any tendency to use mongeese therefore comes from mistakenly assuming it’s a derivative of goose, which comes from Old English gos and can be traced back to Old Aryan *ghans.


4 responses to “Fewer Hassles Means Less Hassle

  1. I always understood “10 items or less” as “10 items in your cart or less than that”.

    Would it be correct in that sense or would we need to say “10 items in your cart or fewer than that?”

    • That’s a good point to make in that with signage, there’s a tendency – perhaps even an imperative – to be brief and, as such, to take out elements that the sign writer assumes the reader will fill in. In this instance, you’d still expect less rather than fewer because the “that” is really just there to stand in for repeating the phrase “10 items in your cart.” So we could have “10 items in your cart or less/fewer than 10 items in your cart,” and less would still apply. Of course, the real question is “does it really matter?” and from the point of view of being able to understand the intent of the phrase, it doesn’t! It certainly doesn’t stop some folks with well over 10 items clogging up the line 😉

  2. Isn’t there an exception when numbers get involved? For example: “⟨ 4” — I’ve never heard it said as, “fewer than 4.” It’s always, “less than 4.” I guess naturally, Math does not follow the grammatical rules.

    • As with all grammatical rules, there are exceptions. Yes, when you’re talking about numbers on their own, less is the recommended marker. The same goes for numbers when they are used to talk about time (“Thank god the vicar’s sermon was less than two hours long this week”), money (“I had less then three dollars in my piggy bank”), age (“I was less than nine years old when I first ate tripe”), and distances (“I live less than 60 miles from Cleveland”). You’d expect such variations if only because we know that language use changes – otherwise we’d all still be grunting. A useful discussion on the “exceptions” can be found at the Language Log site in the posting “If it was good enough for King Alfred the Great…” where linguist Mark Liberman references The Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage and the recommendation therein. The authors suggest that “If you are a native speaker, your use of less and fewer can reliably be guided by your ear. If you are not a native speaker, you will find that the simple rule with which we started is a safe guide, except for the constructions for which we have shown less to be preferred.” I guess the “Dudes’ Guide to English Usage” would have the entry “Use less for stuff you can count, fewer for stuff you can’t count, and don’t worry too much as long it sounds OK and you have a White Russian in your hand.”

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