The Grammarphobia Blog

A taxing question

Q: Can you please explain to me why “He wants everyone to pay less taxes” is wrong, while “He wants everyone to pay less in taxes” is OK?

A: You ask a very interesting question. That’s because the words “tax” and “taxes” aren’t your simple, generic examples of a singular and a plural.

Each of them can be interpreted in two different ways. And that complicates their use with the adjectives “less” and “fewer.” This is what we mean:

(1) “Tax” can refer to an individual levy, as in a gasoline tax or an income tax or a sales tax. And two or more of these would be “taxes”—different KINDS of levies.

(2) “Tax” can also be what’s known as a singular “mass” noun for an amount of something—in this case, the amount of money owed to the government. And “taxes,” even though it’s a plural, is ordinarily used in this same sense. You might reasonably say either “I owed no tax this year” or “I owed no taxes this year.” Though you use the plural “taxes,” you’re thinking of a single sum of money.

Now let’s toss the adjective “less” into the mix.

Nobody would argue with a sentence like “I paid less tax this year.” But how about “I paid less taxes this year”? Is that good English usage?

Not to our ears, it isn’t. And we’re not alone.

When we Google the phrase “less taxes,” we come up with several hundred thousand hits. But there are twice as many for “less tax.” In our opinion, the majority has a better ear (or better ears).

Broadly speaking, the rule in modern usage guides is that the adjective “less” is for a smaller amount of one thing (“less milk”), while the adjective “fewer” is for a smaller number of things you can count (“fewer cookies”).

We’ve written before on our blog about the decline of “fewer,” a word that seems to be occurring fewer and fewer times. And we’ve written that the line between “less” and “fewer” wasn’t always as distinct as it is in modern usage guides.

The Oxford English Dictionary 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.

But getting back to your question, “taxes,” no matter how it’s used, is grammatically plural (like “cookies”). And most people’s ears rebel at the use of “less” with a grammatical plural, as in “less cookies” or “less taxes.”

The appropriate adjective with “taxes” would be “fewer,” but “fewer taxes” would mean a smaller number of individual taxes. And that’s not what we’re trying to say.

The solution? When you want to use the plural “taxes” in a wider sense (meaning the sum), it’s perfectly correct to add “in” and say you paid “less in taxes.” Here’s why.

In the phrase “less in taxes,” the word “less” isn’t an adjective. It’s a noun meaning “a smaller amount.” And “in taxes” (you could just as well use “in tax”) is a prepositional phrase.

This is probably why the phrase “less in taxes” doesn’t offend many ears. It gets more Google hits (2.6 million) than “less taxes” and “less tax” combined.

Check out our books about the English language