Less versus fewer

“Because we had fewer chances we had less chance.”

That just sounds right, doesn’t it? Yet one of the most common “errors” we see in daily English concerns “less versus fewer” (and its cousin “number versus amount”, but we will leave that be here).

It is an error, by the way, and not just a matter of non-standard usage (a different thing). For me, however, it is an entirely forgivable error because the reverse uses the same word: “Because we had more chances we had more chance.”

Indeed, I would suggest that a century from now, “less” will be deemed correct in both instances and the (longer) word “fewer” will be consigned to the designation “archaic”.

However, what is going on here?

In fact, what is going on is relatively simple. “Less” derives from the comparative form of “little”, and therefore in effect means “more little”. So, above, “we had little chance” goes to “less [more little] chance”.

The derivation of “fewer” is more obvious; it is the regular comparative form of “few”. So “we had few chances” and then “fewer chances”.

By removing the comparative element we can select the correct one. It would be literally senseless to write “we had few chance” (thus equally senseless to write “fewer chance”); and likewise it would be senseless (or at least convey the wrong meaning) to write “we had little chances” (thus equally odd to write “less chances”).

So this is not really very complicated. However, will it still be observed in the 22nd century? There’s little chance…

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One thought on “Less versus fewer

  1. bob says:

    Thank you for explaining this, the wording used with ‘chance’ had been bugging me for awhile until i found this on this first page of my google search.

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