English Teacher Article Is it time to call a truce on 'less' + plural?

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The use of 'less people', etc, is now so common in British English that there seems little point in claiming it is an error. Should it still be taught as wrong?

Indeed, is it still taught as wrong?

Is there any point in teaching something so widely used as being wrong? There is a risk that the teacher could undermine themselves by stating something that does not correspond with reality. If a student is taught that something is an error and then hears native speakers using it, isn't there a possibility of damaging the concept of a teacher's authority\knowledge if they teach something different from the realities of usage.

How do you teach it?

Categories: Grammar Topics

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35 Comments

When and how can we know that something is gramatically correct when we are talking about usage? What is the line of division? Is it time and much usage of the term, any term, which makes it an integrated and therefore "taught" and accepted term?
I think "less people", "I have less money than I used to" etc are perfectly acceptable in their being "right"in using English. Why this is so is an even more difficult question to answer. It begs the question when/at what point and for what reasons does an acceptable usage term , previously not regarded as grammatical, become grammatical and correct?
Does that point come when the teacher says , for example "less people" himself/herself, and finds that this is the norm for him? If the language we speak and teach as native English Language speakers :"jar" on us and truly seem to be archaic, and totally against majority usage, then obviously the teacher must be ahead of the game.
IMO, the example you gave is correct, but a word of caution, not all usages have been so accepted.
Does the majority rule, therefore?

It's hard to get the balance right, but it's hard to maintain that it isa an error when it is so widespread. If half the native speakers use it, then it's more likely to confuse the student if the teacher claims it is wrong. However, if they are teaching a course where it would be marked as an error, then there are grounds for teaching it.

I don't like the form as it grates on my ear, but I accept it happily enough. ;-)

As a NNS, I am against this idea emphatically!
This is but the only rule I was able to memorize :)

You have memorised it, but many NSs have not. ;-)

Oh boy,
I am taking a Masters level ESOL course and this "less/fewer topic has just come up.
I think I was absent the "day in 8th grade ",when we learned this rule. I was clueless about it.
Our class was debating wether the Nextel advertisers make a mistake or an error, when they stated "less limits" "more minutes"
To me it rhymed just fine. Leave it alone. It was intentional, plus I had never heard the rule before.
So I went to the school where I teach (elementary) and 3 out of 5 teachers had heard the rule and could explain it to me. Basically, if you are communicating and I understand what you are saying.................. it is an accomplishment.... success.

I'd say 'less limits, more minutes' worked because it sounded good. It may be grammatically wrong, but grammatical perfection isn't everything.

Not being an English teacher, just an average native speaker, this is simply a guess, but perhaps the english language is just experiencing growing pains in the debate between "less" and "fewer". Or to put it in another way, the language is at an "awkward stage" in its development- still a little too aware of the original correct usage to be completely comfortable using "less" and yet also not wanting to sound, as some might say, pretentious for using an "archaic" word.

To use a somewhat cliched word-smith, I bet a lot of Shakespeares contemporaries cringed when he used the word "whirleygig" in one of his plays (I can't remember which play I read that in recently). But now, four hundred years later, nobody bats an eyelash. Hopefully, tdol, you won't have to live for 400 years before you can comfortably hear the term "less people". ;-)

It grates because I was trought up to believe it was wrong, and it is often difficult to escape what one is taught as a child. Thank you for your help- I shall make a redoubled effort to make 'less people' a painless experience. Shakespeare broke just about every 'rule' in the book and he didn't do too badly. as I said, I'm happy to let opthers use it. I don't know whether I'll be heard saying it, though. ;-)

I work for a newspaper here in Scotland. We are constantly torn between trying to speak to people in the language they use and trying to be grammatically accurate. It isn't always possible to do both.
I've just stumbled on this site and am greatly intrigued. You are, for the most part, teachers of English, I understand. Surely then, you have a duty to teach what is correct rather than what is becoming common usage.
I've noticed several people recently (even a TV presenter) saying "pacifically" when they mean "specifically". It perhaps IS becoming common usage through repetition and mimicry, but it's still wrong.
"Fewer" people is the correct term over "less" people. The words have different meanings.
D'ya think?

The cheat's way out is to say that 'fewer' is the more acceptable form. It may confuse students to say 'less people' is wrong, when you know they are going to hear it and see it. If government ministers use it, and Blunket does, then it has reached a high level of acceptance. The OED labels it a disputed usage.

Eventually there comes a point where the pedants are in such a minority that it makes little sense to keep saying they are right. Thirty years ago, they said the correct plural of 'lay-by' was 'lays-by' because prepositions can't have a plural. Confused grammar, I'd say, but certainly not something many would still claim to be the case today.

Language evolves, often in ways we might not favour, but so many say 'less people' that it is hard to maintain that it is an error. ;-)

I wholly agree, the language evolves and that is a good and healthy thing - mostly. Sometimes though, it lessens the language rather than enriches it. Surely it would be better if people like yourself resisted the tendency to lapse into error. A “go with the flow” approach may be convenient, but are you really doing your job if you turn a blind eye to errors just because everyone else does? If so, where do you stop? I would argue that the apostrophe has become ridiculously misused (I’m sure you’d agree) but do you allow students to insert apostrophes into plurals just because the error is widespread?
Could I also ask you to explain why my saying “fewer” is the more acceptable form is a “cheat’s” way out? Frankly, it sounds insulting. Defending the correct usage would seem to me to be the opposite of cheating.

It depends what the aim of the teaching is. I teach non-native speakers, so I take a pragmatic line. I don't see it as my job to be a custodian of correctness and as a bastion of anything. My job is to teach what people say. There are arguments for a conservative approach towards native speakers, but that is a different perspective. I'm sorry I didn't make this clear, but I feel you and I are dealing with different audiences. A newspaper in Scotland has a duty towards the language that is different from mine.

What I meant by the cheat's way out was specific to teaching as a second language, where forms like fewer or the subjunctive are taught as more formal and hence more acceptable in certain contexts, so that they still acquire a prominence greater that their usage percentage might afford them. Hence, these forms are being taught in a slightly disingenuous way as equal, but with one more equal. That's all I meant. In your context it could sound different. I do hope I didn't offend. ;-)

tdol, I found this quote while reading an article on dialects that I found via the Delphi forum.

"Contrary to what your teachers probably tried to tell you, there is no such thing as "correct English." Any manner of speaking that is following the rules of a dialect is equally "correct." Words like ain't are "real" words in some dialects and perfectly acceptable to use. However, people are judged by the way they speak, and dialects carry different levels of social prestige with them based on the prejudices within a society."

http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/1906/dialects.html

Thought you might find it interesting, if not necissarily germain to the discussion.

Um, I meant "necessarily." Grrr, will I ever learn to spell correctly?!?!

It overstates an argument- there is incorect English (Is mine shoe black the on table). However, there is also snobbery at work, which most suffer from. There is as much snobbery on either side of the debate, IMO. 'Ain't'i s fine in some contexts, but I would not argue its use in a job intervbiew or formal letter. I use it in the pub, etc. ;-)

I think I tend to agree with you, tdol, although my posts seem to say otherwise. I tend to play devil's advocate to attempt to fully understand a problem.

There are arguments for both sides. It's the prescriptivist\descriptivst debate. I do, however, doubt that there are many genuine descriptivists. On 'less people' I cannot escape from what I was taught and would never use it, but accept that it is used and let my students use it if they want, with a rider about formal language. ;-)

At supermarkets in Australia, above the checkouts, there is this sign: 'Less than 10 items'. When signs like this appear and are accepted, it is almost impossible to present the correct version using 'fewer'. Perhaps we should teach our signwriters better grammar.

Here in the UK, Sainsbury's used to have a similar sign, but they have changed it. I presume someone had a word with them.

Fight it to the bitter end!

I suppose there is doubt that saying "less people" is not standard English. However, if so many people use it nowadays we cannot dismiss it as being wrong. IMO, it is our duty as English teachers to tell our students that this form is not considered standard English by many people but that it is widely used. I think we shouldn't say it is either wrong or right but simply give them the facts. Now, marking it would depend in my opinion whether we are focusing on accuracy or fluency.

It doesn't sound right to me because I was taught that it was wrong, but I take a more relaxed attitude to it in class, as the students hear it all the time. It's used by certain government ministers, so it has to be accepted as pretty much standard, though I do still teach them as different. ;-)

Could you tell me why "less people" is wrong?? I cannot understand because I know more /less can be used with count/uncountable nouns is that right? and people is count. Sorry could you correct me if I'm mistaken?

Could you tell me why "less people" is wrong?? I cannot understand because I know more /less can be used with count/uncountable nouns is that right? and people is count. Sorry could you correct me if I'm mistaken?

That's exactly right.

So why are you saying that it shouldn't be used like that, instead we should use fewer people??

Sorry; the pattern is as follows:

little\less\much\more can be used with uncountable nouns

few\ fewer\ many\ more can be used with count nouns.

Nowadays, many are using 'less' with plurals. Technically, it is wrong, but its use is widespread and growing, though many dislike it.

thanks! You're right, you see it's so common that I got confused!!!

It's increasingly common, so commonin fact that it is hard to call it an error any longer, and more a matter of preference. To those, like me, who use 'fewer', it still sounds wrong, but to those who use it, it is probably a simplification of the system. ;-)

I just discovered this debate. My bet is that "less people" is even more widespread today than a year ago, and I am happy to go with the flow.

Interestingly, Swedish has the following words:
'faerre' (fewer) - countable
'mindre' (less) - uncountable
'mer' (more) - uncountable
'fler' (more) - countable.

Now, if English has always got on fine without the countable more-word, I think we can probably manage OK without the countable less-word (fewer). Less rules is better than more rules, don't you think?

Willbut - and I am one of those who dislike it! Plus, it also annoys me to hear on television: "There's a lot of people here!" 'There are' is hardly being spoken any more! I will teach my students correct English. Willbut, don't forget - 'much' cannot be used in an affirmative sentence. e.g, I have much time. One has to say "I have a lot of time."

WITH REGARDS TO ANY ENGLISH BEING ACCEPTABLE BECAUSE PUBLIC FIGURES (LIKE THE MINISTER) USE IT: SHOULD AMERICAN ENGLISH TEACHERS ACCEPT/USE "MISSUNDERESTIMATE" AND MANY OTHERS SUCH WORDS JUST BECAUSE GEORGE BUSH HAS? IF YOU ARE TEACHING A GRAMMAR LESSON, I THINK YOU SHOULD TEACH THE CORRECT GRAMMAR, WHILE POINTING OUT THAT MANY NATIVE SPEAKERS THEMSELVES CONFUSE COUNT/NONCOUNT USAGE. THERE DOESN'T SEEM TO BE ANY GOOD/LOGICAL REASON TO CHANGE THIS. ENGLISH (OR ANY LANGUAGE FOR THAT MATTER) IS NOT STATIC AND SHOULD CHANGE AND GROW. FOR EXAMPLE, THE USE OF THE EXPRESSION "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN" IS FALLING OUT OF USAGE, AS IS THE USE OF THE GENERIC "HE." THERE ARE GOOD REASONS FOR THIS. THE FIRST IS TOO COLDLY FORMAL, AND THE SECOND IS BASICALLY SEXIST. SO IT'S EASY TO UNDERSTAND WHY THOSE ARE CHANGING. BUT WHAT'S WRONG WITH FEWER PEOPLE? WHY IS THAT SO DIFFICULT TO GET? PEOPLE JUST MAKE A MISTAKE AND THE MISTAKE IS REPEATED, BUT I DON'T THINK THAT IS REASON TO CHANGE THE RULE.

Thnaks a lot for many (not less) useful answers.
I've checked my daughter's homehork and met this problem.
"The earlier you leave, the less people in the tain will be"
Is this acceptable gramatically or not?
At first I thought it was wrong. Less people????

I'm intrigued by use of "technically" and "prescriptive" and "rule" in the discussion above. The assumption is--as ever--that modern English usage has diverged from ancient usage when everyone got it "right" and that the language has consequently become less precise as a result.

In fact the situation is admirably summed up by no less an authority than Fowler, in his Modern English Usage as a "modern idiomatic restriction". He goes on "the modern tendency is to restrict less so that is means not smaller, but a smaller amount of".

Althogh there is no etymological or historical basis for this restriction, Fowler is in favour of complying with "the general tendency" since it makes for more precision.

Given that the "general tendency" is now in the opposite direction, it is unlikely that Fowler would have resisted it. Ironically he makes specific exceptions for "less clothes" and "less troops" as "singulars of indefinite amounts" but "fewer troops" and "fewer clothes" are now commonly used, presumably the result of over enthusiastic subbing.

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