Ceci N’est Pas un Synonym

Just beside the highway near my home is a large billboard for the Red Lion hotel chain that says “Count Less Sheep”. Every time I see it, I think, Damn, do advertising people not know the less/fewer rule?

This morning I was thinking about this rule. Is it that important, really? We all understand what the billboard means, just as we do at grocery stores that have “10 items or less” checkout lines. So who cares?

This is an age-old discussion among those who care about words and language: is it a slippery slope to poor grammar, or is it merely a reflection of the variable nature of language over time?

In this case, I would argue that the terms in question have different enough meanings to make the distinction important. Both are adjectives describing a decrease in amount, but with an important distinction. Less is used with mass nouns, where the exact amount cannot be quantified:

“We are getting less snow this winter than the average.” (We can measure snowfall, but in this sentence, snow is simply a substance, not a number of things.)

Fewer is used with count nouns, where we can quantify exactly:

“There have been fewer storms this winter than average.” (We can count how many storms have occurred.)

This morning I cast my mind for a similar example that is perhaps more tangible, because we use synonyms all the time with much less furor than when discussing less/fewer. (See what I did there? Ha!)

What about cupcakes vs. muffins? They’re both sweet baked items, often made in the same kind of pan and from almost identical recipes. They’re similar in size, and both typically are baked in paper wrappers.

On the other hand, cupcakes are always frosted and/or decorated, while muffins aren’t. Muffins are usually less sweet and served as a breakfast food or snack, while cupcakes are definitely dessert.

So, cupcake and muffin aren’t synonyms, even though the words describe very similar items. I think less and fewer work the same way. I wouldn’t say “I think this cupcake needs fewer frosting,” nor would I say “I should have eaten less muffins this morning”.

Because both of those statements are just ridiculous. Cupcakes can always use more frosting, sheesh.


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