Less or fewer? Number or amount?
Do you care if you get this right? I’ll assume you do; if not, we’ll catch you next time.
Do you feel a little queasy saying “We found fewer negative responses than positive responses”? Think it might sound a little funny, so you fall back on “less responses”? Or maybe you’ve always thought that “few” couldn’t possibly have an “-er” at the end.
And how about conveniently using “amount” to describe things that are counted when, in fact, they are to be numbered? Doesn’t “amount” cover just about everything. Uh uh.
Let’s take five minutes right now and get our counting/measuring words squared away, okay? It’s really not hard to get this right.
Less or Fewer
We covered this one just three months ago; here’s a quick review. Subjects that are “less” are measured. Subjects that are “fewer” are counted. End of story. Examples:
· Less water in the bathtub (measure it)
· Fewer toys in the bathtub (count them)
· Less yardage gained during the first half (measure it)
· Fewer touchdowns scored during the first half (count them)
· Less filling (measure it)
· Fewer calories (count them)
· Less terrifying (measure it)
· Fewer scenes of death and violence (count them)
· Less effort toward success (measure it)
· Fewer trophies on the shelf (count them)
Notice that “it” gets measured but we count “them.” We measure substances, quantities, distance, emotions, sensations, etc. We count items: toys, touchdowns, calories, scenes, trophies. ‘Nough said. You can return to our August 31 article for a refresher if you’d like.
Amount or Number
Well, obviously, if you got “less or fewer,” you get this one too. These two words pairs seem to wield a double whammy: Either you get them both or you get neither. Let’s be sure we all understand both pairs.
Amounts are measured, as above. Numbered items are individual items, not substances, quantities, etc. Sounds so simple, especially now that we’ve just reviewed “less or fewer.” So let’s look at the mistakes that are in full view on a regular basis:
· “The amount of clients has gone down over the past year.” (Wrong! The number of clients)
· “His latest book had a greater amount of readers than the first offering.” (Wrong! A greater number of readers)
· “The trips cost the same, but this one covers a greater amount of miles.” (Wrong! A greater number of miles.)
· “What was the total amount of sales for the first quarter?” (Wrong! Total number of sales.)
Just to be sure we’ve got this completely clear now, let’s take the four examples above and demonstrate how they might be augmented to correctly use both “amount” and “number.”
· The number of clients has gone down over the past year, but the amount of work never seems to decline. (Count the clients; measure the work.)
· His latest book had a greater number of readers, demonstrated by the amount in royalties deposited in his bank account. (Count his readers, measure his bank balance.)
· While this trip covers a greater number of total miles, the amount of fun you can have on the first one makes it an attractive alternative. (Count the miles; measure the fun.)
· What was the total number of sales for the first quarter compared to the amount we invested in advertising? (Count the sales; measure the advertising investment.)
Voila! We’ve got it figured out:
· Things you count are numbered, and you might have fewer of them.
· Things you measure are amounts, and you might have less of any one of them.
Now you just have to be brave enough to say and write it correctly when all the world around you is too shy to get it right. We can do this!