Thursday March 31, 2005

One Fewer Wheel

As most of us learned in school, the comparative more works for both count nouns and mass nouns (all acceptibility judgments in this post are mine, and you can't have them):

(1) He has more pencils than I do
(2) He has more milk than I do

But for comparisons that go the other way, English distinguishes between count and mass nouns (at least prescriptively, and my judgments agree):

(3) * He has less pencils than I do
(4) He has fewer pencils than I do
(5) He has less milk than I do
(6) * He has fewer milk than I do

This seems pretty straightforward, but a couple of weeks ago I was writing a sentence that required a comparative, but in which neither less nor fewer sounded right.

I'll spare you the actual sentence since it would require a lot of context, and show you what I mean with a simpler set of examples.  Notice that the comparatives that go with count nouns also work when there's a number, and that the plurality of the noun still agrees with the number:

(7) A car has two more wheels than a bicycle
(8) * A car has two more wheel than a bicycle
(9) A bicycle has two fewer wheels than a car
(10) * A bicycle has two fewer wheel than a car

All very consistent, right?  But let's try it with the number one:

(11) A tricycle has one more wheel than a bicycle
(12) * A tricycle has one more wheels than a bicycle
(13) ? A bicycle has one fewer wheel than a tricycle
(14) ? A bicycle has one fewer wheels than a tricycle

Neither (13) nor (14) sounds right to me.  (13) follows the rules (i.e. fewer with count nouns and agreement in number), but I can't decide if I'd say it or not.  Strangely, (14) should be unacceptable because of the mismatch in number, but I don't think it sounds any better or worse than (13).  Even more strangely, I think the sentence can be rescued by using less, which shouldn't work at all with a count noun:

(15) A bicycle has one less wheel than a tricycle
(16) * A bicycle has one less wheels than a tricycle

The pattern here is complex: for me, more goes with both count and mass nouns, fewer goes with bare plural count nouns and count nouns with numbers greater than one, and less goes with mass nouns and count nouns with number one.  In all cases, though, there is agreement between the number and the plurality of the noun.

Do any of you share these judgments?  It's possible I'm just an outlier and most people's grammars are consistent.

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Comments

Huh! I never noticed this before, but I definitely share your judgments!

Is it possible that 'less' just agrees with *grammatical* singular number? Mass nouns are gramatically singular:

Wheat is/*are yellow.
Milk is/*are white.

So singular count nouns and mass nouns share the grammatical number 'singular', even though they differ significantly in their semantics. Maybe 'less' is just suppletive for 'fewer' when it agrees with a [+sg] N?

Posted by: Heidi Harley at Mar 31, 2005 3:45:13 PM

I agree with your judgments as well.
This may be neither here nor there, but "one wheel fewer" seems distinctly better to me:
A bicycle has one wheel fewer than a tricycle.
Even this is improved by substituting less for fewer.

Posted by: Eliah Hecht at Mar 31, 2005 5:34:54 PM

I do agree with your judgments.

Gennaro Chierchia has a theory that might be relevant to this-- he thinks it's no accident that, in many languages, many + much and few + less are the singular & plural forms of the same word. I don't want to say more than that for fear I'll misrepresent his view (I'm 2500 miles from my copy of his handout, unfortunately).

Posted by: Bridget Samuels at Mar 31, 2005 6:32:43 PM

Well, I disagree with your judgement. My preferred sentence would be "one fewer wheel", with "one less wheel" a little bit behind, but awkward. Both "*one fewer wheels" and "*one less wheels" are plain ungrammatical. (I agree, though, that "one wheel fewer" is the best form.)

Posted by: wolfangel at Mar 31, 2005 7:41:47 PM

Somehow, "One Fewer Bell to Answer" sounds wrong...

Posted by: Jim Parish at Apr 1, 2005 9:38:36 AM

"One less wheel" works for me. I basically share your judgments.

Posted by: language hat at Apr 1, 2005 2:02:10 PM

I think it's the juxtaposition of unambiguously singular "one" and "fewer" that feels jarring. I definitely prefer "one less wheel".

Probably because it makes a nice analogical pair to "one more wheel", considering that the opposite of "I want one more" is "I want one less".


Posted by: Jeff at Apr 7, 2005 4:21:41 AM

Jack has ten apples. The number of apples Jack has is ten.

Jill has nine apples. The number of apples Jill has is one fewer (than Jack has).

"Nine" and "one fewer", in this pair of sentences, refer to exactly the same thing: a quantity, whose value is nine, one fewer than the quantity of apples Jack has. They are are interchangable:

(Jack has ten apples.) Jill has one fewer apples. The number of apples Jill has is nine.

The phrase "one fewer" is a direct substitute for the word "nine".

Posted by: Hugh at Jan 23, 2006 10:55:04 AM

Fine, but what about this one?

Jack has two apples. The number of apples Jack has is two.

Jill has one apple. The number of apples Jill has is one fewer (than Jack has).

"One" and "one fewer", in this pair of sentences, refer to exactly the same thing: a quantity, whose value is one, one fewer than the quantity of apples Jack has. They are are interchangable:

(Jack has two apples.) Jill has one fewer apples. The number of apples Jill has is one.

The phrase "one fewer" is a direct substitute for the word "one".

-- If "one" can be directly substituted for "one fewer," then your sentence becmomes Jill has one apples.

Posted by: Rob at Oct 17, 2006 3:16:45 PM

I agree with Hugh. "One fewer" replaces a number which in most cases is plural. So in most cases Jill would have one fewer apples, which in any case sounds natural to me. But then I'm Canadian!

Interestingly, in the original example I find it most correct of all to say, "a bicycle has one wheel fewer than a tricycle," in which case the wheel is clearly singular. More naturally though, I'd be likely to acutally say, "a bicycle has one fewer wheels than a tricycle," in which case I perceive "one fewer" to be plural.

My favourite for the "more" comparative would be, "a tricycle has one wheel more than a bicycle." No problem there. My most likely spoken choice would be, "a tricycle has one more wheels than a bicycle." Like "one fewer", "one more" is in almost all cases necessarily plural.

Posted by: Jonathan at Oct 20, 2006 9:34:11 AM

"If 'one' can be directly substituted for 'one fewer,' then your sentence becomes 'Jill has one apples.'

One could reply that the correct form should be, "Jill has one fewer apple," even if it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. However, I agree with The Tenser, and consider Heidi's explanation plausible. "I have one fewer apple[s]" seems clumsier and more contrived than, "I have one less apple."

Posted by: Jordan at Feb 26, 2008 4:28:05 AM

Ahem, it appears that Rob forgot to include the closing slash on one of his "b" elements, thus why all the subsequent comments were appearing in bold face. If you have the time, the offending tag is on the second-last line of his comment.

Posted by: Jordan at Feb 26, 2008 4:35:01 AM

I don't mean to be a Johnny-come-lately to this discussion, but I think I have a reasonable analysis of the problem, that provides a good argument for Rob's position. I believe that with these sorts of comparatives, preceding nominal material is really functioning adverbially. This is based on my analysis of the sentence 'This is made with two cups less sugar than that,' in which we must, if we accept the grammaticality of the sentence, see 'two cups' as specifying the degree of 'less', which in turn modifies the mass noun sugar. It is also clear that sentences like 'bicycles have one less/fewer wheel than tricycles' are semantically questionable. It is not the case that bicycles have one wheel, and that wheel is fewer. Rather, it is the case that a bicycle has several wheels, but fewer wheels than a tricycle. On this basis, I propose, just as Rob has, that acceptable forms would be 'one wheel fewer' or 'one fewer wheels', both of which could be said to be different elliptical forms of the redundant 'one wheel fewer wheels'. This does lead to the problem of 'one fewer apple', but part of the oddness of the sentence is brought about by the fact that we normally wouldn't say 'one fewer' if we knew precisely how many were involved, and that the default use is therefore with plurals, which causes interference when we're presented with a case that is singular.

Posted by: Colin at Nov 4, 2008 2:30:23 PM

Please assist.
I write Bylaws and read documents, yet attorneys are apparently grammatically challenged. Please review the following excerpts from some legal provisions as follows:

"The Board shall be composed on not less than five and not more than seven persons"
"No rental of a unit may be for less than six months". What about "fewer than six months" / "less than a six month period"?

Thanks in advance.

I have never seen a document that used "fewer" in this context.

Posted by: Randall at Jul 19, 2009 7:21:16 PM

The traditional view is that less applies to matters of degree, value, or amount and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole while fewer applies to matters of number and modifies plural nouns. Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing. Less is more likely than fewer to modify plural nouns when distances, sums of money, and a few fixed phrases are involved and as likely as fewer to modify periods of time .

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/LESS

http://rmjacobsen.squarespace.com/notebook/2006/12/13/troublesome-pairs-less-than-v-fewer-than.html

Posted by: Jon at Nov 19, 2009 7:43:08 AM