"Less than" or "fewer than"?

(31 Posts)
Melpomene Thu 13-Jun-13 12:11:01

Should it be "less than 28 days later" or "fewer than 28 days later"?

In theory "fewer than" is more correct, isn't it? But it doesn't sound quite right.

prism Sat 22-Jun-13 21:35:07

Yes, pounds can be counted, as can pennies, days, months etc. But that's not to say that there isn't a difference between a number of items and a quantity of something; money, time etc. So if you're asking "How many pound coins do I need to operate this machine?" the answer could be "Fewer than 10", whereas if my DD, with a tenner in her pocket, asks that well-known rhetorical question "How much will I need to buy lunch?" the correct (grammatically as well as parentally) answer is "Less than ten pounds". Just as it would be if she had £10.50 in her pocket, when it would be "Less than £10.50", except in that case it's more obvious that only the word "less" can be used, and you don't get sucked into faux-pedantry by the juicy option of saying "Fewer than £10".

burberryqueen Sat 22-Jun-13 14:28:21

no i am not confused at all, pounds you could count obvs.

WMittens Sat 22-Jun-13 13:29:35

yep agree with chugnut cos apparently time and money are uncountable - which is odd as we spend a lot of time counting them. but there ya go.

You're confusing a thing being countable, and a continuous thing whose units of measurement are countable.

Cooroo Fri 21-Jun-13 15:21:10

That's an interesting line of enquiry... off to google!

prism Fri 21-Jun-13 11:25:55

I'm flattered, Cooroo.

It's all very irritating- if we're going to have different words for "<" that apply to countable items and measurable quantities (thus showing that English speakers have an innate understanding of number theory), then we ought to have two words for "more" as well. I'm going to check with DD when she gets back from Germany whether they try the same daft trick; the French don't, and I think it's because they know they'd be barking up the wrong linguistic tree.

burberryqueen Fri 21-Jun-13 09:44:20

yes exactly but only if they were coins right?

Suzieismyname Fri 21-Jun-13 09:40:54

Burberry
"Tiny Tim has less than ten pounds in his bank account."
"Scrooge has fewer than ten pound coins in his pocket."

burberryqueen Fri 21-Jun-13 09:32:40

yep agree with chugnut cos apparently time and money are uncountable - which is odd as we spend a lot of time counting them. but there ya go.

Cooroo Fri 21-Jun-13 09:28:16

Prism you are right. I was wrong. You have a fine mind and your explanations have made me change! Not often that happens.

grin prism

prism Thu 20-Jun-13 22:18:37

Ah. That didn't work. Set theory symbols don't work on Mumsnet. What an appalling oversight! hmm

prism Thu 20-Jun-13 22:17:00

The clue, going back to the OP, is the word "later". This means we are comparing one point in time with another, not counting days. How much later? Less than 28 days. So we are dealing with this:

t < 28

which I'm sure anyone would agree (especially you, MustTidyUpMustTidyUp), means

"t is less than 28"

and t &#8834; R

If it were t &#8834; N and t &#8836; R, we would have a problem.

But it isn't, so it's "Less".

IMHO.

PurplePotato Thu 20-Jun-13 18:32:53

Chugnut is correct, and prism. It's "less than 28 days later", because you're talking of one period of time which is 28 days long, rather than of 28 separate days. The fewer/less than rule doesn't apply in the same way to lengths of time or distance.
news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7591905.stm

Less. It isn't about whether you can count them precisely, but whether you could in context cut them up.

eg Susan has fewer than three children (actually two).
but
The average woman has less than two children (actually 1.8).

That said, sometimes days aren't cut-up-able, eg "Pilots are required to be available for work on no fewer than 185 days per annum."

Other languages helpfully distinguish between day as in calendar date and day as in 24-hour period, one being discrete and the other continuous.

And whether one counts or measures nouns is ultimately cultural. Some cultures count milk; some measure cows.

LifeIsBetterInFlipFlops Thu 20-Jun-13 17:57:29

And your Dad.

LifeIsBetterInFlipFlops Thu 20-Jun-13 17:56:08

Crikey...I love that mash / chips way of remembering - thank you!

MustTidyUpMustTidyUp Thu 20-Jun-13 17:50:36

If it is a discrete measurement ie can only take particular values (time to nearest minute, number of apples) then it's fewer. If its continuous (can be measured anywhere on a continuous scale) eg time, height, weight etc then it's less.
However, agree with chugnut re less being used for time and measurement. It sounds more right. However I'm a mathematician so what would I know.
(Unhelpful then)

TheOriginalSteamingNit Thu 20-Jun-13 17:46:05

Although "fewer' is correct for discrete amounts, I think it sounds a bit odd because of mental overlap with 'in less that twenty eight days' time', in which the time is the thing there is less of, and it is not discrete.

I'd have said fewer.

prism Thu 20-Jun-13 17:41:20

Yes, but in that case you are talking about how many apples you ate, not the amount of apple you ate, because you are only eating whole apples. If it were "flour" you'd say you used less than 10 bags of flour, if you used, say, 9 and a half. In the case of time, if you take less than 28 days to do something, it's just that- "less than 28 days", which makes perfect sense because you are talking about one thing- the amount of time.

There is room for debate, but I'm right. smile

Cooroo Thu 20-Jun-13 13:15:47

Fewer. Absolutely. No room for debate. Say whichever you like, but 'fewer' is correct.

Prism's argument is flawed:
I ate less than a whole apple
I ate fewer than 10 apples.

You cannot extrapolate from 1 to many in this case.

prism Fri 14-Jun-13 23:28:57

Or to put it another way:

"Less than a year later" is correct.
"Less than a day later" is correct.
So "Less than 28 days later" is also correct. The "less" qualifies the amount of time, not the number 28. We're not counting days here, we're measuring an expanse of time, just like if your height is 4' 6" or less you can't go on a ride, etc.

Crikeyblimey Fri 14-Jun-13 19:20:18

My lovely dad taught me a good way to tell the difference.

You can have less mash potato and fewer chips.

If you can pick up an individual one (ok so you can't pick up a day but you can remove one from the "pile") it is fewer. If taking an amount (a spoonful) away makes the "pile" smaller, it is less.

So, I would say fewer

prism Fri 14-Jun-13 19:15:16

But you're talking about one expanse of time, so "less" could be OK, depending on what come before it. It's "less time" not "fewer time", so in the context of the whole sentence, "less" might be better. "28 days or earlier" would keep all pedants happy.

Melpomene Thu 13-Jun-13 12:31:15

Aha, this guidance agrees with Chugnut. (Scroll down to the last few paragraphs.)

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