Friday, April 29, 2011

Less than perfect

I like to come back to this blog every year or so. In fact, I got to work at 8.30 this morning so don't feel so bad wasting half an hour writing about one of my favourite things: grammar.

Today, our source material comes from twitter.

@PreciseEdit tweets:
Wrong: We have LESS than 3 gallons remaining. Right: We have FEWER than 3 gallons remaining.

It's hard to know where to start with this one. How about here: THAT IS SO UNBELIEVABLY WRONG!!

Actually, that may not be the best place to start. This blog has never been about right and wrong and I don't take a black and white approach to English.


Cos, y'know, this is wrong.

Isn't it?

There may be a grey area. Let's explore.

I've been an advocate of the word "fewer" for as long as I can remember. It's not a hard word to say, it has only five letters, yet people insist on mis-using the word "less" where "fewer" would be perfectly fine.

To go over the rule quickly, we use "less" when we're talking about a single mass of the same thing but "fewer" when we're talking about a number of individual things.

For example:
We bought a dozen cupcakes for the party. I just ate one, so now there are fewer cupcakes.
We bought a big cake for the party. I just ate a slice, so now there is less cake.
Now, what @PreciseEdit did is interesting. He used a liquid as his example. And here's where things get a bit vague.

Let's say you have three gallons of something. How is it contained? Is it in one big container, such as a petrol (or, for our trans-pacific cousins, gas) tank? Or, is it milk, in three individual, one-gallon bottles?

This is important, and to be fair to @PreciseEdit, it's hard to give complete context when you only have 140 characters to make your point.

But back to the containers.

Let's assume we're talking about milk in bottles (because I don't think they make cartons that big). And let's assume that you're referring to each bottle as a gallon.

So, if you came home from the supermarket with two bottles of white, cow-derived dairy liquid, you could conceivably say:
I have bought some milk. I only had enough money to buy two bottles, so we have fewer than three gallons.
Why anyone would feel the need to point that out, I don't know. But if you were referring to the presence or absence of a number of gallon-sized units of a particular liquid, there is a case where you could conceivably use the word "fewer" in referring to them.
"How many gallon-sized bottles of milk am I holding up?"
"No, fewer."
You get the idea.

Now, the problem with liquid is that you can't count it the way you do, say, cupcakes, pipe bombs, testicles, whatever.

When liquid is in a container, it doesn't care how much of itself there is. It's not obvious to us all that it's a particular number of somethings.

If you see a person with one arm, you immediately know the quantity of arms you're looking at and that there are fewer than the normal amount. But you can't do that with liquid. You can't tell just by looking at a liquid how many of it there are.

A mass of liquid, when you take a bit of it away, is still just a mass of liquid.

What we do as humans, because we need to know these things, is assign an arbitrary measure to this liquid. In this case, volume.

So let's say that we have an empty tank, we go to the petrol station (please suspend your disbelief; I don't know how we got the car here on an empty tank) and we put exactly 11.35623534 litres in the tank. We do this because we don't live in a backwards country that hasn't even caught on to the metric system yet. If we did though, we would have bought exactly three gallons of fuel.

Now, let's say we drive around the block and measure how much is in the tank. Will it be two gallons exactly?

Shit, no. It's going to be 2-point-nine-something gallons of fuel, or 11-point-one-something litres.
Now, we have less fuel than we did when we started.

Ask yourself. Do we have fewer than three gallons? Or less than three gallons.

It's less.

It's the same with money. While it might be tempting to say "I just bought a $3 coffee and paid for it with a hundred, so I now have fewer than $100", it's not really the best way to explain the concept because as soon as you break up a dollar into smaller units, you can't really quantify the number of dollars. They cease to become discrete units that can be counted. So if your coffee was $2.80 you didn't spend fewer than three dollars on it, you spent less than three.

And on that note, it's time for my coffee. I like it hot but please let's not get started on whether it should be over 60° or more than 60°. You work it out.


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