Less, fewer, many, and much

A reader wrote in asking for the correct grammar for this phrase: “less than ten years’ experience.” Should it be “fewer than ten years’ experience”? I’m so happy you asked about this point of grammar, which is so often flouted in spoken American English that most people had forgotten it just when grocery stores finally conceded: it’s the difference between count and noncount nouns. How fabulous! Let’s dig in.

First, the rule:

  • Use less for noncount nouns; fewer for count.
  • Use much for noncount nouns; many for count.

Count nouns are nouns representing items you can count, such as knives and spoons, and noncount nouns describe things that come in mass quantities that you cannot count, such as water, time, food, and—get this—money.

A good test for whether a noun is count or noncount is to ask “How many _____ do you have?” If the question makes sense, and you can answer it with a number, you have a count noun. “How many knives do you have? Ten knives.” Knives is a count noun. “How many money do you have? Seven moneys.” Um, no. That does not make sense. Money is actually a noncount noun, even though people count their money all the time! What they are really counting is dollars, and dollars is a count noun.

Now let’s put “fewer” and “less” in there. “I have fewer knives than spoons,” but “I have less time than money.” Fewer pennies = less money. Many mouths = less food.

“Less than ten years’ experience” is a difficult phrase because it contains both a count noun, “years,” and a noncount noun, “experience.” How many years? Ten. But how much experience? Well, ten years’ worth of experience. This phrase is describing an amount of a noncount noun, experience, so less is the correct word.

So what is the deal with the grocery stores? They used to have sign over one lane that said “Ten items or less.” Grammatically astute shoppers over the years wrote in so many complaints that many, if not all, grocery stores have changed the signs to read “Ten items or fewer.” Meanwhile, in the spoken language, we routinely say things like “Describe your qualifications for the job in 50 words or less,” and “You may enter the amusement park ride in groups of five or less.” The Gregg Reference Manual, which I must thank for those last two examples, even goes so far as to say that even though fewer would be correct in these situations, less is more often used, and that in casual writing or speech—such as in grocery stores!—less sounds better.

The upshot of this conflicting information is that the formal rules disagree with colloquial, spoken American English, but in formal writing you must still follow the rules. Fewer and fewer people will notice, however, if you get less wrong.

Parallelism in Lists

Bulleted lists, numbered lists, lettered lists, and lists in text all require parallel structure. This means that when you have a list of nouns, every item on the list must be a noun. If you have a list of –ing verbs (gerunds), then every item on the list must be a gerund. Why do we editors have this draconian rule? It is all for the reader’s benefit.

When you present information as a list, the goal is to get the information across to the reader as quickly and efficiently as possible. If the items on the list are not parallel in structure, the reader has to work harder to understand the content. The concept is similar to counting money. If you have ones, fives, tens and twenties all jumbled together, the money takes longer to count, because you have to analyze each bill for what type of bill it is, find the key information on it—the denomination—and then perform mental addition. But if you organize all the ones together, all the fives together, and so on, you can simply count the stacks, and then do the addition.

Consider this list:

  • Red
  • A shade of blue
  • Some of the items are green
  • Also yellow

It probably took you a few seconds to determine that the key information was color. The first item was a color, the second was expressed as a phrase, the third was expressed in a complete sentence, and the last one had an extraneous word in front.

Contrast that list with this list:

  • Red
  • Blue
  • Green
  • Yellow

You probably understood immediately that these are all colors, so you could focus on exactly which colors were named. And you have a greater chance of remembering the colors because there is less distraction.

Almost any part of speech or grammatical structure can be used in creating a parallel list; the whole game is that you must use the same structure throughout. No mixing nouns with adjectives or verbs with phrases.

Ways to Create a Parallel List

Gerunds (verbs ending in –ing)

This summer we participated in many sports:

  • Bicycling
  • Swimming
  • Jogging
  • Rollerblading

Clauses (short, basic sentences)

Our students like many types of exercise:

  • Jorge likes to go running cross-country;
  • Mariana participates in roller derbies;
  • Ann does triathlons;
  • Thomas swims in age-group time trials.

Infinitive phrases (starting with the word “to” followed by a verb)

Our booklet has three purposes:

  1. To inform people of our services,
  2. To encourage volunteers to join us, and
  3. To solicit information about reader interests.

Led/Lead/Leading/Leading

When I told a friend who works as an editor that I had been asked to write about these words, she did a little victory dance involving that John Travolta pointing a finger skyward thing, saying, “Yes, yes! People get that wrong all the time.”

And it’s no wonder they do, since we have here two words that sound alike but are spelled differently, and two words that are spelled alike but sound different. Between them, these four words have three different meanings that are often confused. And to top it all off, these words have other meanings that typically are not confusing at all.

Let’s lead off with (sorry, couldn’t resist) the verb “to lead,” pronounced “leed” and meaning to show the way by going ahead of others. In the present and future tenses, it is spelled with the a: I lead the way, he leads the way, and tomorrow they will lead the way. The –ing form of this verb is “leading” (pronounced “leeding”), as in she is leading the way. In the past tenses this verb is spelled “led” and rhymes with “bed”: Yesterday he led the way, and he has often led the way.

Now let’s look at the noun “lead,” spelled with an a, rhyming with the word “head,” and meaning a type of metal, as in she wore a lead shield during the x-ray. It also means the marking material inside a pencil. And it also means the narrow chunk of metal that used to be inserted between lines of metal type to create line spacing in typography. The process of putting that chunk of metal in used to be called “leading,” pronounced like “heading.” Today we use the word “leading” to describe the space between the lines, or the baseline-to-baseline distance, in typography.

Here are a couple memory-aid sentences that may lead to clarity on this issue:

What led you to place so much leading between the heading and the text? That may lead the designer to want to fill you full of lead!

Now how did that victory dance go?

And, Both, and As Well As

Which of the following sentences contains a grammar error?

  1. Both the status report on the bridge project, as well as the budget report, are in the folder.
  2. The page proof as well as the list of corrections has been sent.
  3. Smith, Michaels and Jones is our law firm.

I often see errors of verb agreement in business writing, even though at its most basic level, verb agreement is considered quite elementary. After all, almost no one who writes professionally would say “the reports is in the folder” or “the project are complete.”

How, then, do we end up with verb agreement problems in professional writing? Often the problems occur when more than one subject precedes the verb in a sentence.

The basic rule for multiple subjects is that when two or more subjects are connected by the word “and,” a plural verb is used. For example, “My dog and my cat [a total of two pets] are [plural verb] hiding behind the couch.”

The second rule, however, is that if you use a connecting phrase other than the exact word “and,” the subjects do not add up. So when you connect two subjects with phrases such as “as well as,” “in addition to,” or “along with,” the additional subjects do not count. For example, “My dog [the main pet I am discussing] as well as my cat [which does not count, because I used a phrase other than “and”] has [singular verb] fleas.”

Another problem that comes up with “and” versus other connecting phrases is the use of the word “both” in front of any other connecter but “and.” The words “both” and “and” form a team, known as a correlative conjunction, and “both” cannot be used with other phrases. “Both Jack as well as Jill” is completely wrong. Either eliminate “both” or use “and” instead of “as well as.”

Finally, there is an exception to the “and makes plural” rule. I call it the macaroni and cheese rule. Some phrases containing the word “and” actually describe a singular thing, like macaroni and cheese. When you eat macaroni and cheese for dinner, you are eating one dish. The macaroni and the cheese are all mixed together to form one substance. So we correctly say “The macaroni and cheese [one substance] is [singular verb] good tonight.”

Not only other foods, such as spaghetti and meatballs, but also many proper nouns and job titles contain the word “and” but name a singular thing: steak and eggs is my favorite breakfast; the Stars and Stripes is waving atop the flagpole; Smith and Jones is the accounting firm; our secretary and treasurer is Mike.

With these rules and exceptions duly noted, by now you can be sure: number 1 is incorrect, and numbers 2 and 3 are correct.

 

Welcome to the EditorialTraining.Net Grammar Blog

Should I use affect or effect? Do I need who or whom in this sentence? When do I say “if I were” versus “If I was”? This blog will help you with these and other common grammar questions and conundrums. The good news about English grammar for most of those who speak, write, listen to, and read English daily, is that most of correct grammar is already part of your knowledge base in the language. Only certain words and phrases cause problems, and those problem areas are the focus of this blog.

I have been a grammar instructor for business and government writers and editors for nearly 20 years, and I have found that the same questions come up in nearly every class I teach.

This blog is sponsored by my company, EditorialTraining.Net, which provides training courses on writing, editing, proofreading, and grammar.