Are You Wrong About “less” or “less Than”
Have you ever seen a sign on a grocery store counter that said “ten items or less” and muttered “It should say “ten items or less !”” and your monocle fell in a fit of complacency? Well, don’t call the manager yet, Professor English, because it’s not that easy. I’m about to blow your mind right now: there is no hard and fast rule about when to use “less” or “less”.
It is widely believed that “less than” refers to numbers and “less than” refers to amounts, but there are many exceptions and this was never the rule to begin with.
The old “rule” of less versus less
Traditionally, we are taught to use the word “less” when we talk about things we count, and “less” when we talk about things we measure (and things that cannot be measured).
By this rule we say:
“There are fewer guards working today than yesterday, and they are less enthusiastic.”
We count the guards, but measure the enthusiasm.
Does it make sense? Good. But this does not apply to many common uses of the words “less” and “smaller.”
Many exceptions to the “less than” or “less than” rule
We don’t usually use the word “less” when talking about money, distance, weight, time, and statistics. In these cases, we usually use “less”.
For example, here’s how we talk about ruin:
“I have to rob a bank! I have less than a thousand dollars in savings!”
It wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to say, “I have less than a thousand dollars in savings,” but that has a different connotation because we often think and talk about money as an abstract whole rather than individual units of money. .
If you want to talk specifically about the currency and not about the money itself, you can use “less”:
“After the explosion, I picked up ten hundred dollar bills from the vault floor. George caught less than six.”
The same basic idea applies to time. For example:
The cops will be here in less than five minutes!
If you want to draw attention to units of time rather than the general idea of time, you can use “less”:
“Look at the clock! We have less than five minutes until the police arrive!
The same rule applies to distance:
“The police station is less than five miles from the bank!”
“The last time I went to a restaurant, I weighed less than 200 pounds.”
We also use “less” instead of “less” when talking about statistics. We are speaking:
“Less than 10,000 prisoners are currently in federal prison for bank robbery.”
Complete anarchy, really.
General Usage Exceptions
There are phrases that we use all the time that go against the rule of “less” versus “less” for seemingly no reason. For example, “an essay of 800 words or less.” Or “one less thing to worry about.”
This is where the “10 items or less” sign appears in the supermarket. This tablet may gnaw at your internal grammar, but face it: it’s correct because that’s how it’s commonly used, and in fact, it was never wrong to begin with. .
The word “Less” has been used by writers when they “should” say “less” for over a thousand years, in fact since the advent of written English. But it’s been less than 250 years (see what I did there?) since it was (erroneously) declared a rule.
The culprit seems to have been the early linguist Robert Baker. In Reflections on the English Language from the 1770s , Baker writes: “[Less] is most often used when speaking of number; where I should think that less would be better. “At least a hundred” seems to me not only more elegant than “At least a hundred”, but also more correct.
Note that Baker does not say that this is a rule. He says “I should think” and “It seems to me” and talks about the elegance of word choice, but Baker is only stating his preference – and even if he sets the rule, Robert Baker is not the king of the English language. Baker’s influence among the sharp-headed 1700s (and our own desire to appear smarter than the man who writes supermarket signs) has led generations of English teachers to tend to reconsider Baker’s preferences.
In the end, when to use “less” or “less” is up to you. “Less” is usually used to refer to a number of things, and “less” to a number of things, and some people may look down on you for doing things differently, but you’re not wrong . There is nothing wrong with a sign that says “10 subjects or less” and you can say that to your English teacher’s face.