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July 15, 2011

It is surprising how words tell us so much about numbers. One test I do is to ask what is wrong with ‘Discuss this between yourselves’, when addressed to a room full of people. Generally the reaction is: there’s nothing wrong. Ideally I would expect the word ‘between’ to be replaced by ‘among’ (or ‘amongst’). The distinction being one of number: ‘between’ implies two people, whereas ‘among’ suggests more than two. A room full of people is more than two. In discussion this is no big deal; there are enough nonverbal messages for the meaning to be clear. But in writing this distinction is important. If I write ‘discuss this between yourselves’, I give a clue as to how many people are involved. It might be a surprise when you discover I was talking of a large number of people.

A variation on the number theme is the way we quantify, using specific words. Lesser or fewer? Which is correct? As ever, it depends on the context. ‘Ten items or less’, Tesco tells us as we queue patiently. That sounds OK. But it is grammatically incorrect. ‘Fewer’ is the correct word choice. Take the sugar test: less sugar in my tea, and fewer sugar lumps in my tea. If I reverse these two I can see the error: fewer sugar in my tea? Or, fewer milk in my coffee? So ‘less’ for quantity or amount, and ‘fewer’ for numbers.

In an article in The Telegraph (in 2008), Tom Peterkin noted that the Oxford University Press suggested: ‘Less means “not as much”. Fewer means “not as many”. Now we have ‘much’ and ‘many’; more number clues. He also gave the example of referring to quantities: ‘we say less than six weeks, not fewer than six weeks, because we are not referring to six individual weeks, but to a single period of time lasting six weeks.’ He noted, then, that Tesco was going to change its sign to read: ‘Up to ten items’, but only for new stores. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen that sign.

Oliver Kamm, ‘The Pedant’, looked at this numbers game recently in his column in The Times. He touches on a few more instances such as the ‘no less than’ construction. ‘No less than six chapters are devoted to the subject.’ Or should this be ‘no fewer than’? The point he makes is that the six chapters are not so much items, as the quantity of space in the book. So ‘less than’ can work here.

However we work it, number clues in our writing are important; we should pay attention to their subtleties If Tesco bends the language that doesn’t mean we should. It’s not that we are being pedantic, but when it comes to communicating clearly ‘every little helps…’

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