“One fewer” or “one less?” – A definitive answer

“One fewer person” or “one less person”? It’s one of those nagging questions you only come across rarely. I did, when I had to translate a line from Dutch for my previous article. It went: “Een cadeautje minder, een friend meer” or (literally) “one fewer/less present, one friend more”.

My head says “one fewer present” is correct grammatically (if you can count it, it’s usually “fewer”), but my gut says “one present less”. So what should it be?

Determined, I set out to find a definitive answer.

I tried the BBC news style guide, and The Guardian style guide, both of which were utterly unhelpful.

Some websites gave sensible answers, an excellent example of which is the Arrant Pedantry blog, stating quite rightly that “less and fewer illustrates quite well virtually all of the problems of prescriptivism,” and opting for “one less” as the better option, on the grounds that no one recommends the use of “one fewer”. Another well sourced article here explains why this is not the sin some call it, and The Grammar Logs considers the example “there is one fewer student” and says: “we use “less” with uncountable quantities and “fewer” with countable. You really can’t count one student. Well, you can count him or her, but “one student” cannot be pluralized (forget cloning!), so “one student” is a non-count noun. This means we want “less” in that sentence.”

Of course there are those who are incensed by the growing use of “one less”. Their argument takes a purist view of the rule (if it is countable use “fewer”, if it isn’t use “less”), and that too makes perfect sense to me. I don’t like it when publications display ignorance, but I wasn’t sure about this one.

To resolve this question once and for all, I wanted to find out how the rules are treated in the media, which isn’t always grammatically pure, but is a good representation of accepted modern use, especially in places like the BBC that strives to uphold high standards of language, whilst staying current. I ran a set of searches on six major news websites and on Google News (that aggregates news articles).

And here are the results of my survey, which counts usage of the “one fewer” and “one less” on each site, presented in percentage rates for comparison:

one fewer or one less survey results

Although “one fewer” is used some of the time, “one less” is the most common. Interestingly the BBC makes an effort and its hacks use “one fewer” the least, while the New York Times uses it the most.

“One less” wins. Overwhelmingly. If it were ever a rule then its time is up.

Geeky entry over.

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