Monday, September 15, 2014

McSally Ad Demonstrates the Challenge of Fewer vs. Less

Posted By on Mon, Sep 15, 2014 at 12:30 PM

I don't generally like to get into grammar wars - after all, in this business, there's generally someone willing to send me an email every time I commit a sin against the English language and I'll probably still screw something up in this post - but gosh, it feels like someone should have caught the fewer/less error in one of the hundred or so (seemingly) Martha McSally ads running right now.

In the ad titled "Time" (above), the narrator kicks into a general list of complaints Southern Arizonans might have with Congress...a lack of border security, sad senior citizens and this:


Certainly, the argument should probably be about the veracity of McSally's claims (and next week's cover story by Jim Nintzel does a great job of looking into McSally's plans to fix Washington and America), but every time I've seen and heard the ad, I block out everything following the error, which might as well be a cymbal crash adjacent to my ear.

As mistakes go, this is a common one, mostly because the meanings of the words are the same, but their usage is different. From the New York Times' After Deadline blog:

The basic rule for precise use of “less” and “fewer” is simple (though we slip often). Use “fewer” with countable, individual things, and “less” with uncountable amounts, volumes, etc. So: “I should drink less coffee,” but “I should eat fewer doughnuts.”

But it’s not as simple as plural (fewer) vs. singular (less). Sometimes “less” is correct even with a plural noun. The Times’s stylebook says this:

Also use less with a number that describes a quantity considered as a single bulk amount: The police recovered less than $1,500; It happened less than five years ago; The recipe calls for less than two cups of sugar.

So, yes, "less" can be correct with a plural noun, but since the number of jobs lost (sigh) can be counted and isn't a singular, bulk item, fewer should be correct.

These things happen, but how did this ad slip past the dozens of people who must have watched this ad before it was sent off to seemingly every network and cable channel? Didn't someone say "Wait, 'less jobs' just doesn't sound quite right...maybe we should check into that"?

Again, I realize this opens me up to a distinct amount of criticism regarding my own use of words, but hey, if you're spending a ton of money to run ads, it might be wise to double-check the language used on them.

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