Thursday, June 02, 2016

It's “less than three weeks”, not “fewer than”

The stylebooks are wrong on the rule about less/fewer.

Here is an excerpt from a Reuters story about the Egypt Air crash that made me cringe:
The recorders are designed to emit acoustic signals for 30 days after a crash, giving search teams fewer than three weeks to spot them in waters up to 9,840-feet (3,000 meters) deep, which is on the edge of their range.
It should read “less than three weeks”.

The stylebooks say that you should use “fewer” for things that you can count and “less” for things you don’t count. You can count one, two, three weeks.

But I am with Grammar Girl on this one. She says,
Time, money, distance, and weight are often listed as exceptions to the traditional “can you count it” rule because they take less, but when you use the “singular or plural” rule, time, money, distance, and weight all fall in line.
She has a couple of excellent examples to make the case that you should use “less” rather than “fewer” in those cases.
  • We had less than $1,000 dollars in the bank.
  • We’re less than 50 miles away.
  • I can fix the roof in less than 12 hours.
The number of dollars is one amount of money. The number of miles is one distance. The number of hours is one period.

And I’ll add this one: All the wrestlers in that class have to weigh less than 140 pounds. “Fewer” would sound absurd in that case and is, of course, wrong.


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