While watching television the other night, I was taken aback when I saw this commercial:
The commercial was going so well until the ending when these words are read: "More power. More style. More technology. Less doors" (emphasis added). Less doors?! It's fewer doors.
Not everyone is a grammar guru and remembering which word is appropriate in certain contexts can trip many people up, especially if they or their family members are non-native speakers of English. But the people who created this commercial should have known better. This mistake should have been caught somewhere in the editing process before it made it to production. Was no one on that advertising team a native English speaker who passed high school English?
I am by no means a prescriptivist when it comes to grammar, but you have to keep in mind who Mercedes’ target audience is. Mercedes-Benz is a luxury vehicle that wealthy, well-educated people purchase. Their clientele probably knows what the subjunctive case is and uses it regularly. Mercedes is a company that should be able to afford the best talent to create its ads and for there to be such a blatant grammar error in a commercial is, quit frankly, embarrassing.
So that you can avoid making the same embarrassing mistake as the Mercedes ad team, here’s a quick guide on how you can remember when to use the word “less” or the word “fewer.”
Less = Non-Count Nouns
If you cannot count the noun you are referring to, then you use the word “less.” Examples of non-count nouns are: electricity, humidity, weight, salt, air, and water. You cannot say “I have one electricity,” or “”I have three humidity” because the noun refers to the phenomenon as a whole.
For non-count nouns, you will use “less.” So, “Toasters need less electricity than televisions” and “Dallas has less humidity than Houston.”
The moment you add a quantity indicator in front of the non-count noun, your adjective (“less”) is no longer modifying the non-count noun; instead, it is modifying the new count noun you introduced and needs to be changed to “fewer.”
Examples of quantity indicators are: loaves of bread, kilowatts of electricity, pints of water, puffs of smoke.
Fewer = Count Nouns
If you can count the noun you are referring to, then you use the word “fewer.” Examples of count nouns are: door(s), animal(s), book(s), television(s), and spoon(s). Since you can say “I have one door,” or “John has two spoons,” fewer is the appropriate adjective to use.
So, “This car now has fewer doors” and “After two cats ran away, Jenny has fewer pets” are acceptable ways of indicating a decrease in quantity. The same applies when referring to non-count nouns that have a quantity indicator preceding them. So, “I baked fewer loaves of bread” (NOT “I baked fewer bread”).
If you have difficulty differentiating between count and non-count nouns, spend some time looking up lists online, print them out, and keep them handy until you are familiar enough with the words that you no longer need the lists. Most dictionaries don’t include a count/non-count noun indicator in the word entry, so it’s up to you to create a list for yourself. Some dictionaries will include a list of common count and non-count nouns in the back, so be sure to check yours.
Think-Behave-Speak-Write.com has a very handy mnemonic for remembering what words are non-count nouns. You can check it out here.
Purdue’s Online Writing Lab also provides easy to use tests for determining if the noun you have is a count or a non-count one. You can check them out here.
Good luck with your less and fewer usage, and make sure you edit your work more carefully than the Mercedes advertising team did!
Photo credit: Hooverine