December 28, 2020
I still think using the correct grammar is important in our writing. I had grammar beaten (or beat?) into me during my middle and high school years. Yet, there are still at least three couplets of words that I still get confused.
Less versus Fewer
Why is it so easy to confuse less and fewer? Perhaps because they both represent the opposite of the comparative adjective more. Luckily, the conundrum of less vs. fewer has a solution that is simple to remember. It involves deducing whether fewer or less will be working with a countable or uncountable noun in your intended sentence.
In English, we use the same word, more, for a greater number and a greater amount/quantity. There is little doubt about when to use more.
Cookie Monster has demanded more cookies. Could you give Cookie Monster more milk to wash those down with?
Cookies is a countable noun; it is possible to count cookies. Milk, on the other hand, is an uncountable noun; it is a liquid that we measure in terms of volume. Uncountable nouns are always singular.
Tip: A good way to test that a noun is truly uncountable is to try making a plural out of it.
Could you give Cookie Monster more milks to wash those down with?
That quick check confirms that milk is an uncountable noun.
The Difference between “Less” and “Fewer”
Fewer means “not as many.” We use fewer with countable nouns like cookies.
Cookie Monster was told to eat fewer cookies.
Less means “not as much.” We use less with uncountable nouns like milk.
Could you give Cookie Monster less milk next time?
Most often, you will not have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce whether a noun is countable or uncountable, thus the decision between less and fewer will be an effortless one.
If fewer people used disposable water bottles, there would be less plastic in landfills.
Molly has been drinking less water than she should on this dry day.
David makes fewer grammatical mistakes than the average person.
My new furniture leaves me with less space for yoga practice.
As the days passed, the rose had fewer petals left on it.
In these examples, determining the countability of the nouns involved was easy. People, grammatical mistakes, and petals are all countable nouns. As difficult as it would be to count all the people who use plastic water bottles, it would be possible to enumerate them because they are itemizable individuals.
Plastic, water, and space, on the other hand, are uncountable; we only describe them in quantities. To make them countable, we would be obliged to compartmentalize them in some way (e.g., pieces of plastic or glasses of water). Nouns that can be further defined and measured in this way make the distinction trickier. For example, here are two sentences with almost the same meaning, but one requires fewer while the other requires less.
Now that my commute is shorter, I use fewer gallons of gasoline each week. Now that my commute is shorter, I use less gasoline each week.
In the first sentence, fewer is used with the countable compound noun gallons of gasoline. In the second, less is used with the uncountable noun gasoline.
“Less vs. Fewer” with Money
Although we can count money, it is usual for us to think of money as a bulk quantity rather than an aggregate of currency units. Therefore, we use less rather than fewer.
Rebecca has less than twenty dollars left in her checking account.
It would not be wrong to say, “Rebecca has fewer than twenty dollars left,” but it would seem awkward and unexpected to your reader.
“Less vs. Fewer” with Time
It is also customary to use less with regard to time, even though we can count time in seconds, minutes, hours, and so on.
Ethan has been at his job for less than five years. I wish I could spend less time on household chores.
Yet, depending on how general or specific your reference to time is, it may require the use of fewer.
I wish I could spend fewer hours on household chores and more on watching television.
“Less vs. Fewer” with Weight
Weights are also nouns that are measured in a countable way, yet are customarily used with less rather than fewer.
Baby pandas weigh less than 200 grams at birth.
Even though the pandas’ weight is countable (and in fact we did count it, in grams), it would seem awkward to write, “Baby pandas weigh fewer than 200 grams at birth.”
“Less vs. Fewer” and Percentages
Determining whether percentages represent something countable or uncountable can be tricky. To decide whether to use fewer or less with a percentage, you will have to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, “What is this a percentage of? Is it countable?”
Fewer than eight percent of the world’s people have blue eyes.
Although counting the world’s people would be an unenviable task, it is possible to count individual people. Therefore, eight percent of the world’s people is countable and we use the word fewer.
I see you have eaten less than ten percent of your mashed potatoes.
As determined as the speaker in this sentence might be, it would not be possible for him or her to enumerate the uneaten percentage of potatoes. Therefore, we use the word less.
Farther versus Further
Unsurprisingly, farther means “at or to a greater distance.” In Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys uses this adverb to describe the activity of some sea vessels: Some boats eventually floated ashore. And some boats, like me, seemed to float farther and farther from land.
Besides physical distance, farther can also refer to “a more advanced point” or “to a greater extent.” In the following quote from The Great Gatsby, for example, farther describes how arms are stretched to a greater extent. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby The farther you go . . . the harder it is to return. The world has many edges and it’s easy to fall off. —Anderson Cooper, Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival
The definition of further does overlap with farther, but first let’s look at the meanings that are unique to this term. Further, unlike farther, can be a verb: He’d do anything to further his own interests at the company. It means “to aid in the progress of, to promote, or to move forward.”
As an adverb, further means “in addition to.”
As an adjective, it means “more, extended, or additional.” For instance, you might ask for further information or pursue further education. Consider this quote from The Life of Pi by Yann Martel: You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.
How do the definitions of farther and further overlap?
Some usage guides disagree, but both terms have been used interchangeably to describe physical distance. Here is a quote in which further fulfills that role: The further from one another, the nearer one can be. —August Strindberg, The Road to Damascus
In response to a question from a writer, The Chicago Manual of Style deferred to Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, which states: “Farther and further have been used more or less interchangeably throughout most of their history, but currently they are showing signs of diverging. As adverbs they continue to be used interchangeably whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved. But where there is no notion of distance, further is used.”
Notice how further is used in this quote from The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now . . . Come further up, come further in!”
Farther or Further From the Truth
How do you express the idea that something is completely untrue? Is the correct expression farther from the truth or further from the truth? A quote from Popularity Explained by Alex L. Freeman reveals the answer: The dictionary definition of popularity is “to be liked by many.” Based on this definition, you might predict that popular students are the cheeriest and most agreeable people in a school: kind to everyone and always willing to lend a helping hand. Such a conclusion couldn’t be further from the truth!
Lay versus Lie
When to Use Lay
To lay is to set (or otherwise place) something in a resting position. Here are a few examples of lay in a sentence.
I don’t like to lay my purse on the floor.
The dogs always lay their toys next to their water bowls.
How to Use Lie
A lie is an untruth. However, it’s the verb form of lie that people find difficult to distinguish from lay. The verb lie means to tell a falsehood. Here’s an example of lie in a sentence:
Sometimes children lie to get out of trouble.
If to tell an untruth were the only meaning of lie, using these two words properly would be less of a challenge. However, lie can also mean to recline or to rest in a flat position. Notice this example:
The fat cat likes to lie in the sun.
How to Remember the Difference between Lay and Lie
(pLAce) and (recLIne)
This mnemonic should help you remember that lay, which begins with the letters L-A, has a long A sound like its definition: to place. On the other hand, lie, which starts with the letters L-I, has a long I sound like its definition: to recline.
How Should I Use Lay vs. Lie?
Knowing what the words mean doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to use lay and lie.
Again, here are a few rules to help you. In the present tense, you often use a direct object with lay. However, lie can’t take a direct object. Look back at the examples again to see these rules in play.
There’s still one more thing you need to know. When you are talking about reclining, the past tense of lie is lay! Here’s an example.
Yesterday, he lay down to sleep at ten o’clock. Tonight, he won’t lie down until midnight.
Laying Vs. Lying
Beware of spelling! The present participle of lie is not lieing. The I becomes a Y: lying. Here is a mnemonic from the website Primility to help you tell laying and lying apart:
“If you tell an untruth it is a lie, not a lay; and if you are in the process of telling an untruth you are lying and not laying.”
The delivery boy took pleasure in gingerly laying each newspaper on the stoop.
I can always tell when my friend is lying because she bites her lip.
I spend rainy days lying on my couch.
The past tense of lie (as in, to tell an untruth) is lied. As you can see, the past tense of lie is lay, but the past tense of lay is laid, which is a recipe for confusion! To remember that laid (as opposed to lain) is the past tense of lay, just memorize this phrase:
Use a D when there is a direct object. Because you need a direct object only with lay, you will know that the past tense is laid.
I would like to lie next to him in the dark and watch him breathe and watch him sleep and wonder what he’s dreaming about and not get an inferiority complex if the dreams aren’t about me. Rachel Cohn, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist
Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. George Orwell, Animal Farm