Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fewer Lesses

The Guardian has, over the last couple of weeks, been hosting a lively debate about the appropriateness of using 'less than x hours' rather than 'fewer than x hours' when discussing time.

One correspondent referred to this essay by the Professor of Linguistics at the University of California. It is, as the letter-writer said, 'elegant and witty'.

As one who takes many short-cuts across grammar's annoying corners I commend it to you.

1 comment:

RuthJ said...

This is a very interesting point. To those of us who were taught grammar, er, shall we say earlier than the mid-60s, certain things - like split infinitives - simply sound wrong, and irritate.

However, the example you give ain't one of them. 'I spent less hours there than usual' would feel all wrong, and I'd want to say 'fewer', because we would be referencing a specific _number_ of hours (though unstated). However, 'less than x hours' is fine by me, because x hours can be a time-span as well as a precise number of hours. And there's no problem at all with 'less than' a time-span.

Will read the essay you refer to at a more leisured moment!