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Less / Fewer: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Mark Twain

Check this category every week for a new set of ceaselessly confused, misused or misspelled words to master. Break the cycle of language abuse!

Less / Fewer

Can you count it? Can you know that there are fifteen cats at the rescue and only four gerbils? Than you know that there are fewer gerbils than there are cats. If you started out with twenty-seven gerbils and sixteen cats, you absolutely know that fewer cats were adopted than gerbils and that the cats have some catching up to do.

On the other hand, if the cats were more fastidious about using their litter pans and the gerbils just pooped wherever they happened to be standing, we would say that the cats smelled much less than those stinky little gerbils, since the amount of smell isn’t a countable thing. We might expect then, that fewer cats would be returned to the rescue because they required less care when it came to their personal habits. The less I have to run around after a critter with a dustpan and disinfectant, the fewer issues I have with said critter. Fewer headaches. Less tension. Fewer clean-ups. Less anger. Fewer poops on the floor. Less repulsion, nausea and disgust.

So, if we can count it, we never use less to describe it. We don’t say that there are less M & Ms in the dish than there were before or that there are less people in line for the romantic movie than the horror flick or that a car has less tires than an eighteen-wheeler. In all of these situations, fewer would be the correct choice because we know (or can know) the exact number of items that exist.

Here’s some practice. Fill in the blanks with fewer or less.

She’s having _____ headaches these days thanks to her new job. Of course, she also has _____ responsibility and makes _____ money. She works _____ hours and enjoys having more time to do other things, but has discovered that having_____ money means she can do _____ things. It also means that can have _____ clothes, _____ happiness, _____ trips, _____worldliness, _____ snacks, _____ satisfaction, _____ fun and _____ manicures. Oh dear. Looks like she might have a headache coming on.

(Answers to LEAD / LED: When it was my turn to lead the discussion, I decided to talk about how the lead in our pencils is graphite and not lead at all. I thought this was fascinating but, as it turns out, I led my audience down a rabbit hole of boredom. After an hour, all this talk of fake lead led to a mutiny led by the last person I’d have expected. It was our teacher who stifled a yawn, took the lead and curtailed my talk. Well, I’ve learned my lesson. Next time I’ll talk about lists and lists of constantly misused homophones. That should wow ‘em!)

(Answers to HAVE / OF:

  “I would’ve loved to have gone to the concert but I didn’t have the money,” said Sass.

“You should’ve told me that you needed money. I could’ve loaned you some,” said Pixie.

     “If I’d have thought of it in time, I might have,” said Sass. “But then I wouldn’t have known when I could’ve paid you back, so it’s just as well.”

     “It wouldn’t have been a problem, Sass,” said Pixie. “My dad has plenty of money for all of us. He’d have foot the bill!”)