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20 mph or fewer?

(14 Posts)
Flossbert Tue 02-Apr-13 20:08:57

I was telling a gripping driving-related anecdote earlier, about being stuck behind a car on an A road which continued to drive slowly as we approached the motorway.

"Even on the slip road he was doing less than 20 mph"


"Even on the slip road he was doing fewer than 20 mph"

What say you, pedants?!

MrsHoarder Tue 02-Apr-13 20:10:06

Less. Mph is continuous, you can go 7.5mph for example.

Flossbert Wed 03-Apr-13 13:46:24

Is it as simple as that?! If you were to ask how many miles this numskull could cover in an hour, wouldn't the answer be "fewer than 20"?

MrsHoarder Wed 03-Apr-13 14:27:42

No, because he could cover fewer than 19.5. Or 19.67834 if you fancy. Continuous data is less, discrete is fewer. There's a BBC article discussing the difference here.

StealthPolarBear Wed 03-Apr-13 14:29:33


Flossbert Wed 03-Apr-13 15:44:36

Hmmm. Velly intelesting!! I shall consider myself told!

prism Fri 05-Apr-13 21:43:51

Personally I don't think discreteness or otherwise is anything to do with it- if you had four and a half apples and someone else had six, as a pedant you would, I hope, say you had "fewer" apples, not "less". However you might, if you were about to make pies with them, say that you were going (with your 4.5) to use "less apple". Apple is an aggregate quantity, whereas the apples themselves are items that can be counted, even using fractions.

So when you're talking about miles per hour, what you're really talking about is speed, which is an aggregate quantity, hence "20 mph or less" etc. As a pedant (or indeed as anyone) you could say that at 20mph you were doing 20 fewer miles per hour than someone doing 40, but your speed would still be "less" than theirs.

NotTreadingGrapes Sun 07-Apr-13 17:48:39

fewer with things you can count, less with things you can't.

less flour/fewer flowers.

WMittens Mon 08-Apr-13 13:38:05

Prism's got it covered.

Flossbert Tue 09-Apr-13 09:27:17

I have to say, I had thought it was as prism says, although I could never articulate it so clearly, but I have heard that discreteness is the key, which is why I asked. I'm going to retreat to my original position to side with prism!
(I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure!)

NotTreadingGrapes Tue 09-Apr-13 09:33:09

It is exactly as prism says. (and as I said, but with fewer words grin

You use less for things you can't count, like "speed" (generally speaking) in Prism's example and the idea of a mound of cooked apple rather than apples-as-single fruits.

I don't really understand the reference to discreteness though?

Suzieismyname Tue 09-Apr-13 12:11:48

this link is better

in everyday English if something is discrete then it can be counted

Suzieismyname Tue 09-Apr-13 12:16:34

But it's the last paragraph that's important.

"Less is also used with numbers when they are on their own and with expressions of measurement or time"

prism Tue 09-Apr-13 14:13:52

Why thank you for that concurrence grin. I must admit that it's thoughts like these that led me to flirt with the idea of "10 items or less" being quite acceptable, as you could say that what it really means is "10 items or less shopping", not "10 or less items", and even a pedant could enter the express lane unscathed by crimes against grammar.

But this was only a flirtation.

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