I used to joke about not knowing or needing to know about math. Many grammar nerds do this, I think — “Addition? What’s that?” We like English, and everything else becomes insignificant in comparison. As far we are concerned, ellipses are not ovals but rather sets of periods.
We know deep down, however, that math is indeed important. At the very least, counting is important. Why? It affects English, of course. I have only fully come to appreciate counting due to the uprising of a new nightmare come to torment grammarians. It is the confusion between “fewer” and “less,” and you must be able to count to understand the difference.
The general rule for these words is as follows: If you can count it, use “fewer”; if you cannot, use “less.” It is a basic but often overlooked concept.
I find that this rule gets violated most when one talks about people. Because people are countable things (a Sesame Street-esque demonstration: “one person, two people, three people …”), they ought to be referred to in terms of “fewer.” Using “less,” as some carelessly do, changes the meaning altogether, sometimes with scary results.
Take, for instance, “I wish there were less stupid people in the world.”
A person who says this is wishing for all people in the world to be less stupid. Highly understandable, mind you, but I think he means to wish that the number of stupid people in the world were smaller (i.e. that there were fewer stupid people in the world), which is similar but not the same.
Someone might take it a step further and say, “I wish there were less people in the world.”
This sentence can mean several things at face value. I’m going out on a limb here, but it could be considered analogous to, “I wish there were less anger in the world.” Wishing for less people might then indicate a wish for people to be less peoplelike — a hope for less humanity, perhaps. But I hope not. Anyone who actually said and meant this would have to congratulate himself, for such a desire as this must be self-fulfilling.
Even more disturbing is the notion that the person might be saying, “I wish there were less people in the world,” in the same manner one would say, “I wish there were less meat in the world.” That brings to my mind an image of mashed-up people mush in varying quantities around the world. If that were the case, I too would desire less people (mush). I would also be extremely worried for a world that necessitated such a statement.
These sinister sentences can be lightened up considerably if one uses the proper “fewer” to describe people. Wishing for fewer people in the world, though still somewhat gloomy, has significantly less dark implications than wishing for less people in the world.
Please, dear readers, spread the message far and wide: Learn to count, and use “fewer.” Apparently, the fate of the world depends on it.
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