The Grammarphobia Blog

One less question to answer

Q: The Burt Bacharach song “One Less Bell to Answer” can’t possibly be correct, but it sounds more natural than “One Fewer Bell to Answer.” Am I missing something here?

A: Bryan A. Garner has a good explanation of this “one-less” business in Garner’s Modern American Usage. “If, in strict usage,” he writes, “less applies to singular nouns and fewer to plural nouns, the choice is clear: one less golfer on the course, not one fewer golfer.”

The usage is tricky, he adds, “only because less is being applied to a singular count noun, whereas it usually applies to a mass noun.” Burt Bacharach “got it right,” he says, and “most contemporary writers get it right” too.

“Nearly a quarter of the time, however, writers use one fewer, an awkward and unidiomatic phrase,” he goes on, attributing the error to “a kind of hypercorrection induced by underanalysis of the less-vs.-fewer question.”

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of American Usage agrees. In a discussion of “less,” the editors note: “And of course it follows one.” Examples given include “one less scholarship” and “one less reporter.”

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