1. ## Are numbers countable?

Seriously. I just realised something I never noticed before.

The general rule is, for countable nouns, use "fewer"; for uncountable nouns, use "less".

But for numbers, we always use "less". "Six is less than seven". If we were counting items, we would almost certainly use "fewer": "Six boxes is fewer than seven boxes". But for the abstractions called numbers themselves, we always use "less". I wonder how this evolved. Are numbers not considered countable nouns?

2. "Six" and "seven" are not countable, any more than "the planet Jupiter" or "Martin Luther King" are countable. They're unique entities (in this case, abstract concepts). We think of their magnitude as lying on a continuous, uncountable scale, like the mass of Jupiter or the height of Martin Luther King, so we use "less than" in comparison.
Another way of coming at this is to say that we count in integers (which form a countable set), so we compare counts using the "countable" comparator. But we measure magnitudes on a continuous scale, the uncountable set of real numbers, and so use the "uncountable" comparator.

Grant Hutchison
Last edited by grant hutchison; 2020-Oct-18 at 01:00 PM.

3. Well there are fewer primes than integers. However the rule about less and fewer is getting lost I fear as fewer people bother or couldn’t care less.

4. The "rule" about using fewer for a countable noun was first violated by Alfred the Great in the ninth century. When people have been ignoring the rule for the entire history of the English language, it probably means it isn't a rule at all.

Grant Hutchison

5. Here's another approach.
It's perfectly acceptable (if slightly eccentric) English to say, "Six are fewer than seven." The plural verb cues us to understand that the six and seven are counting something unspecified (they're cardinal numbers, in other words), and are not referring to the numbers themselves. But as soon as we say "Six is ...", we understand an ordinal context--the six can't be counting something, and so we reach for "less than".

Grant Hutchison

6. Originally Posted by parallaxicality
Seriously. I just realised something I never noticed before.

The general rule is, for countable nouns, use "fewer"; for uncountable nouns, use "less".

But for numbers, we always use "less". "Six is less than seven". If we were counting items, we would almost certainly use "fewer": "Six boxes is fewer than seven boxes". But for the abstractions called numbers themselves, we always use "less". I wonder how this evolved. Are numbers not considered countable nouns?
I think basically what Grant said, but I think simply it's because we are not using them as countable items. Six when used as sums, there is only one, so "six" in the sense of "six items" is just a sum and isn't countable. When you say "there are more sixes in this equation than in that one," then you use it with "fewer" because you are using the word as something countable.

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I hear things like "they're less than ten yards from the goal line" and "there are less than five minutes left to play" which seems right since those are measurements, but I also hear "they're less then 7 points behind", but points are countable.

8. Originally Posted by grant hutchison
The "rule" about using fewer for a countable noun was first violated by Alfred the Great in the ninth century. When people have been ignoring the rule for the entire history of the English language, it probably means it isn't a rule at all.

Grant Hutchison
I think the issue is more with utility than with usage. "Less" vs "fewer" is a useful distinction that, if we're not careful, we could lose. English has already lost a number of useful distinctions ("this", "that" and "yon" come to mind) due to misuse. I don't want "fewer" to go the way of "literally".

9. Originally Posted by parallaxicality
I think the issue is more with utility than with usage. "Less" vs "fewer" is a useful distinction that, if we're not careful, we could lose. English has already lost a number of useful distinctions ("this", "that" and "yon" come to mind) due to misuse. I don't want "fewer" to go the way of "literally".
Well ... There are lots of "useful distinctions" (like this one) which were simply created by eighteenth and nineteenth century grammarians, and don't correspond to how real people speak the language. Breaking the "rule" doesn't confuse one's meaning, and other languages get on perfectly well without making the distinction. My own view is that it's only still around because it's become some sort of shibboleth for "my education was better than your education", and because there are a group of people who gain some sort of perverse satisfaction from being irritated by supermarket signs that read, "Five Items Or Less".

Grant Hutchison

10. Originally Posted by grant hutchison
Well ... There are lots of "useful distinctions" (like this one) which were simply created by eighteenth and nineteenth century grammarians, and don't correspond to how real people speak the language. Breaking the "rule" doesn't confuse one's meaning, and other languages get on perfectly well without making the distinction. My own view is that it's only still around because it's become some sort of shibboleth for "my education was better than your education", and because there are a group of people who gain some sort of perverse satisfaction from being irritated by supermarket signs that read, "Five Items Or Less".

Grant Hutchison
How true those points are. Both that the language moves on, a strength, and the snobbery of knowing some Fowler rules. I cannot get past an unreasonable objection to “different to “ and “different than” But the meaning is clear whichever. The plural form seems to come from usage, fewer being a plural of less, rather than considering countability, it is rather like whether none is singular or plural. It can be both when, for example, “none of the survivors have injuries” where a grammarian will say “none has” . So is none countable? We hear both “less than none“ and “fewer than none“, while these have different meaning in countability context.

11. Originally Posted by grant hutchison
Well ... There are lots of "useful distinctions" (like this one) which were simply created by eighteenth and nineteenth century grammarians, and don't correspond to how real people speak the language. Breaking the "rule" doesn't confuse one's meaning, and other languages get on perfectly well without making the distinction. My own view is that it's only still around because it's become some sort of shibboleth for "my education was better than your education", and because there are a group of people who gain some sort of perverse satisfaction from being irritated by supermarket signs that read, "Five Items Or Less".
I completely agree.

I really fail to see any reason why we need the distinction between "less" and "fewer" depending on whether the noun is countable or not. It seems more like a device to confuse foreign students learning English. Why is it that despite them being the same size, you have to say "there are fewer peas in the bowl" but you have to say "there is less corn"? Or why can't we say, "there are fewer spaghettis on this plate"? It doesn't really make any sense, because it is basically historical legacy. I think it is a bit the same as how a speaker of a Romance language could not imagine that you could do without masculine and feminine genders for nouns, and yet in many languages like English we manage to get by quite well without having to make a distinction between a masculine table and feminine chair.

12. Originally Posted by Jens
Or why can't we say, "there are fewer spaghettis on this plate"?
I'm up for "fewer spaghetti", which sounds fine to me. I think I may even have said it. (The fewer the better, as far as I'm concerned.)

Grant Hutchison

13. So hard to count cooked spag.! “Fewer is more” is hard to countenance too.

14. Originally Posted by profloater
“Fewer is more” is hard to countenance too.
Good point. If this distinction between countable and mass nouns is so useful, why don't "fewer" and "less" have correspondingly separate opposites? It's just "more corn", "more peas", "more spaghetti", "more items", and no-one gets confused or anxious about that.
The fewer/less distinction is a classic example of prescriptive grammarians finding two words doing pretty much the same job, and trying to give them different jobs, just because they felt that they should have different jobs. The same thing happened with "which" for non-defining clauses and "that" for defining clauses--no-one every fussed about that until someone decided we should fuss about it.

Grant Hutchison
Last edited by grant hutchison; 2020-Oct-19 at 03:30 PM. Reason: spelling

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Originally Posted by parallaxicality
The general rule is, for countable nouns, use "fewer"; for uncountable nouns, use "less".
In mathematics, the distinction between a set that is "countable" versus one that is "uncountable" refers to a difference in cardinality. For example, the cardinality of the set of rational numbers is a countable infinity and the cardinality of the set of real numbers is an uncountable infinity..

16. I like to say things like "You dropped a spaghettum on the floor," just to get the reaction.

17. Originally Posted by DonM435
I like to say things like "You dropped a spaghettum on the floor," just to get the reaction.
Spaghetto, to be insufferably nitpicky. I mention it only because it caused a Twitter storm a few years ago, for reasons known only to people who tweet. National newspapers in the UK became positively breathless about this "revelation".
Similarly, panino. I'm no big fan of panini, but my wife likes them, and I often end up ordering on her behalf. I can't seem to bring myself to say "a panini", which is the customary usage in the UK, nor do I feel able to say "a panino", which sounds horribly affected. So I always end up saying "one of your panini", and wincing slightly when I hear myself say it.

Grant Hutchison

18. If fewer comes from few, then few can be an adumbration as in “I had a few beers.” There is no reduction of less, although we do have lesser. Fewer beers and less beer both make sense but fewer needs that plural. Lesser brings us down to two, as in “the lesser of two weevils. But lesser can have uncountable uses as in “lesser men would have had fewer beers” so it seems the redundancy of the two words gives rise to more subtle uses. “More beer” “More beers” (strangely a phrase I know in a few languages).

19. Originally Posted by profloater
If fewer comes from few, then few can be an adumbration as in “I had a few beers.” There is no reduction of less, although we do have lesser.
Few, fewer, fewest. Little, less, least.

Grant Hutchison

20. Originally Posted by grant hutchison
Spaghetto, to be insufferably nitpicky. I mention it only because it caused a Twitter storm a few years ago, for reasons known only to people who tweet. National newspapers in the UK became positively breathless about this "revelation".
Similarly, panino. I'm no big fan of panini, but my wife likes them, and I often end up ordering on her behalf. I can't seem to bring myself to say "a panini", which is the customary usage in the UK, nor do I feel able to say "a panino", which sounds horribly affected. So I always end up saying "one of your panini", and wincing slightly when I hear myself say it.

Grant Hutchison
I get into fights on Wikipedia because I insist on using "graffito". For some reason Brits get really weird about Italian. It's not that hard to pronounce "oregano" or "ministrone" correctly. Everyone in America does, and the Brits are happy to put them down for not speaking properly.

21. Well, oregano is actually Spanish. Americans certainly do put the emphasis in the same place as the Spanish, whereas Brits don't. As for minestrone, I only ever hear Brits use the standard four-syllable Italian pronunciation (albeit with Anglicized vowels), whereas some Americans (I think in the New York / New Jersey area?) use a three-syllable southern Italian pronunciation, omitting the final "e". Likewise, no final vowel on mozzarella or prosciutto or calzone. I presume that reflects the origin of the Italian immigrants to these areas. It seems like you could reasonably argue that both pronunciations are correct, since both are standard in parts of Italy.

ETA: I'm reminded that there was an Italian pizza place across the road from my old flat, which was called Origano, Italian for oregano. The highlight of dining there was listening to the Italian-Scottish owner dealing with customers who felt that they should point out that he'd misspelled the name of his restaurant.

Grant Hutchison
Last edited by grant hutchison; 2020-Oct-20 at 01:13 AM.

22. Originally Posted by tashirosgt
In mathematics, the distinction between a set that is "countable" versus one that is "uncountable" refers to a difference in cardinality. For example, the cardinality of the set of rational numbers is a countable infinity and the cardinality of the set of real numbers is an uncountable infinity..
And on this note, I just wanted to point out...

Originally Posted by profloater
Well there are fewer primes than integers.
...that there are countably infinite primes, and so the cardinality of primes is the same as that of the integers. There aren't fewer (or less!) primes than there are integers.

23. Originally Posted by Grey
And on this note, I just wanted to point out...

...that there are countably infinite primes, and so the cardinality of primes is the same as that of the integers. There aren't fewer (or less!) primes than there are integers.
Well I did not define the set,! In the set less than infinity, there are fewer, but there are fewer of those sets than infinite sets. And the infinity of primes has not been demonstrated by counting. But maybe I am less than right about that? Phew,

24. Originally Posted by grant hutchison
Few, fewer, fewest. Little, less, least.

Grant Hutchison
Ok that’s right but we have littler and littlest too. Lesser and fewer have evolved a little differently ; Encroaching on small . But on the main point here, we do not need too much worry about less versus fewer Calories. (Just to pick an example on my mind)

25. Originally Posted by grant hutchison
Well ... There are lots of "useful distinctions" (like this one) which were simply created by eighteenth and nineteenth century grammarians, and don't correspond to how real people speak the language. Breaking the "rule" doesn't confuse one's meaning, and other languages get on perfectly well without making the distinction. My own view is that it's only still around because it's become some sort of shibboleth for "my education was better than your education", and because there are a group of people who gain some sort of perverse satisfaction from being irritated by supermarket signs that read, "Five Items Or Less".

Grant Hutchison
I do not. I have no problem with "5 items or less" coexisting with "five items or fewer". My problem is that English could lose a subtle samantic shade if "less" becomes dominant. English is not a particularly beautiful, logical or well-structured language. But it has two points in its favour: one, a relatively simple grammar (though less simple than many others) and 2, a vast word hoard that allows speakers to employ shades of meaning impossible in most other languages. I've never understood why English speakers, rather than revelling in their language's one unique ability, instead choose to restrict themselves to a relatively small and often nonsensical toolkit of words and phrases.
Last edited by parallaxicality; 2020-Oct-25 at 12:40 PM.

26. Originally Posted by parallaxicality
I do not. I have no problem with "5 items or less" coexisting with "five items or fewer". My problem is that English could lose a subtle samantic shade if "less" becomes dominant.
But English never had that subtle semantic shade--it's entirely manufactured, a random "rule" that created a needless distinction no-one ever cared about or became confused by. I'd go so far as to say that the delightful richness of English (and I bow to no person in my delight in the English language) is actively undermined by these usage straightjackets invented by eighteenth-century prescriptive grammarians with too much time on their hands.

Grant Hutchison

27. One joy of the English language is how we can use one word as noun, verb, adjective or adverb. It is not universal but if someone hauls a word into a new context we know the meaning. Counting is a very special case but “less” and “fewer” can both serve as noun or adjective. Then we can say “twenty less ten” or “care less.” These uses are not lost if we forget about counting rules, since as Grant has said, there is no rule authority in English. The plain English movement makes it clear that (usually) communicating meaning is the test. The exceptions being deliberate ambiguity, for example in satire.

28. Originally Posted by parallaxicality
I've never understood why English speakers, rather than revelling in their language's one unique ability, instead choose to restrict themselves to a relatively small and often nonsensical toolkit of words and phrases.
Sorry to say this, but it's because languages do not exist to fascinate their users by their "unique abilities." They exist to allow people to communicate, and if they can do that with a relatively small and often nonsensical toolkit of words and phrases, then that is what we will use. Perhaps you are different, but in general, we use language to communicate what we want to communicate in an easy way. We do not see it as an aesthetic exercise in using our language using its unique abilities. If people wanted to have a language with the most possible words, then every language in the world would come to resemble English because people would prefer that.

29. Reason
Duplicate post

30. Originally Posted by profloater
One joy of the English language is how we can use one word as noun, verb, adjective or adverb.
In certain situations it is a joy, but I can assure you that it can also be a drawback. When I'm trying to teach English to (particularly Asian) non-native speakers, one of the hardest things is that they often confuse a noun for a verb or what not, and can't understand a sentence because of the difficulty in understanding what word has what function in the sentence.

31. Originally Posted by grant hutchison
But English never had that subtle semantic shade--it's entirely manufactured, a random "rule" that created a needless distinction no-one ever cared about or became confused by. I'd go so far as to say that the delightful richness of English (and I bow to no person in my delight in the English language) is actively undermined by these usage straightjackets invented by eighteenth-century prescriptive grammarians with too much time on their hands.

Grant Hutchison
But, aren't all word usages manufactured? It seems to me that some distinctions are manufactured by the folk as a whole, while others are manufactured by individuals. I get the impulse to stand with the plebs; I come from a long line of hardcore socialists. But to me it doesn't really matter who made a tool, as long as the tool is useful. After all, we laud Shakespeare for his contributions to our language, and the wisdom of the masses can lead us astray. You cannot tell me English is better off without a plural "you".

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