Q: I’m careful to observe the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” but I wonder why this distinction developed in the first place and why we still have it?
A: We observe the distinction too, but we may be in the minority.
We’ve written before on our blog about the decline of “fewer,” a word that seems to be occurring fewer and fewer times.
As we point out in that blog entry and others, the traditional distinction between “fewer” and “less” is that “fewer” means a smaller number of things (“fewer ice cubes”) while “less” means a smaller amount of something (“less ice”).
However, that explanation doesn’t do justice to “less,” which has many other usages besides. It’s used with percentages and fractions, and in expressions like “one less,” “no less than twenty,” and others.
But on to their development. Both “less” and “few” were derived from old Germanic languages, and they were first recorded in Old English writings in the 700s or 800s.
“Fewer,” the comparative form of “few,” came along later, and was first recorded in writing around 1340, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
“Less” originally was a comparative form of “little,” the OED says. Its meaning was “smaller” or “of not so great size, extent, degree,” and so on.
“Few,” meaning “not many,” is just as old as “less.” It was recorded in such sources as Beowulf (perhaps as early as the 700s), the Vespasian Psalter (circa 825), and the Venerable Bede (c 900).
Keep in mind that the line between “less” and “fewer” was not always as distinct as it is in modern usage guides.
In fact, the OED has examples from the year 888 to modern times of “less” used to mean “fewer”—that is, a smaller number of things.
This isn’t surprising, of course, since “fewer” wasn’t even available until the 14th century.
At any rate, people happily used “less” to mean “fewer” for some 900 years before anybody minded.
In 1770, the grammarian Robert Baker suggested that “fewer” would be “not only more elegant … but more strictly proper” than “less” in a phrase like “no less than a hundred.”
And that, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, is how the “rule” for using these words was born.
Today, the OED says, this use of “less” to mean “fewer” is “freq. found but generally regarded as incorrect.”
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