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Friday, September 16, 2011

Word Mix-ups: Less vs. Fewer

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. 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


At least he didn't say "less door", like it was a commodity, as in "less bacon". I'm glad you called them on it, because it is indefensible : P Apologists might say that perhaps he meant "less doors" as in "without doors/sans doors" but I don't think that's the case.

I'm surprised you spotted that; you notice everything : ) Reading your post reminded me me when I was in college taking my writing class. It was rigorous and my professor was just as picky. I loved this post, like all your other posts.

Thanks so much for the compliments, RC! I was glowing all day after reading them.

Hi Carmen, we like your blog a lot. Amanda and I like to read blogs in front of the fireplace each with their computer on hand, and sometimes hot cocoa. We like to discover what other people are saying about this wonderful world. Lately it's been very hot so we still sit in front of the fireplace, but with "less fire" and "less cocoa" HA! We don't watch tv; at least not the pointless drama and commercialized programming. We don't have cable so we stick to PBS, and blogs. We had cable and we loved the discovery and history channel, but we found it a bad influence for our 4 yr old son. Perhaps when he's old, much older we can reconnect it.

Anyway, so much much of our world is obfuscated or distorted or even ignored by the mainstream media. There's a million important things happening in the world and all of them are ignored by the corporate news channels. So we don't watch the news, but we do love to read blogs. My name is Mitchell by the way, and wanted to write to you and say how trilled we are to have found your site for some time now. We've been reading every single one of your posts, and it's like we discovered a secret mine. My wife teaches high school history and has decided that all her students must use your site as reference for when they need to write their papers. It's a pain to get them to write anything. By the way, that commercial grinds my last nerve, too. I find that it tries to appeal to the lowest common denominator. By relaxing the language, they may be seeking to appeal to teenagers and the uneducated. I hope this is not the beginning of a trend.

We really liked the story about your stray dog that you took in and took care of. It warmed our hearts, and that's why we decided to write and say "keep it up" because we like blogs, and yours is one of the best ones we've run across. Amanda really appreciates your grammar and style posts. Truth be told, she's based a few of her lessons on your posts. I prefer the ones with a personal touch or the ones where you tell a story. Keep writing, because we love reading. By the way, I hate that commercial, too, but Amanda thinks it's cool.

Mitchell and Amanda from Gresham, Oregon

My husband and I just saw this commercial and were astonished by the error. We also happen to own an AMG Mercedes and are VERY disappointed that this ad made it all the way to television.

I've always used the following to explain this issue to people:

If you have fewer dollars, you have less money.

Or, fewer bottles means less beer.

Thanks for catching MB on this one. My wife and I both yelled at the TV when we heard the voice over!

Scott from Atlanta

Though your description of the difference between less and fewer has some merit, your claim of error is based more on peevishness, superstition and the perpetuation of zombie rules than on a sound grasp of English. While fewer makes a poor substitute for less, less is a fine and well established alternative to fewer. It does not indicate a substandard intelligence or education, a feeble grasp of grammar, laziness or any other character flaw, obstinacy, perversity, or being of the lower classes.

I assure you that Mercedes and their ad writers knew exactly what they were doing--this is no error. Ads have been receiving heat from pedants for as long as there has been printed words. In the 60s, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" was damned as likely to lead to the downfall of civilization. Time and energy would have been better spent alerting the public to the dangers of cigarettes rather than to the dangers of grammar heresy. And what would you say to the Hanes ad writer who coined "Pantyhose that fit"?

I think that armchair grammar mavens become so upset at errors of this sort precisely because they mean so little.

Thank you all so much for your kind comments! You don't know how much it means to me to know that someone besides my mother reads this blog.

These past two years in particular have been rough on me and I've thought of shutting this blog down many times. Last year I was working 14 hour days at an alternative charter school and it took all my energy just to get home, plan for the next day's lessons, shower, and fall into bed. Now that I'm looking for work closer to home (preferably with students who don't threaten to put caps in my head for assigning homework), I feel guilty spending time writing blog posts when I should be looking for work or doing something that will help me professionally, financially, or educationally.

So, long story short, it warms my heart to know that there are people out there who are enjoying and benefiting from this blog. Writing Simplified has always been a labor of love, not done for financial gain, and your comments let me believe I haven't been wasting my time.

Mitchell and Amanda:
I, too, try to avoid watching television as much as possible. I saw Jersey Shore a few times to see what all the hype was about and was disgusted by the behavior and ignorance I saw on the show. Goodness knows I'm not so snooty that I think fart jokes have no place in life, but what you see on popular programming nowadays is mindless violence, vulgarity, and selfishness without any attempt to celebrate the softer, more refined facets of life as well. Worse, there's never any remorse or lessons learned from inappropriate behavior exhibited on the shows. The end result is a populace that is increasingly desensitized to rude, outlandish behavior and a younger generation that is growing up believing that the conduct portrayed on television (particularly reality tv) is the societal norm. I'll get off my soap box now, but I'm just so glad there are others who share my point of view.

I love that you're a teacher, Amanda. I have a soft spot for educators because I've seen first hand just how difficult it is to educate this generation. I'm not old by any means (only in my late 20's) but I feel absolutely ancient when faced with a generation that refuses to read for entertainment, much less for school, and has virtually no work ethic. It makes being in the classroom a challenge, to say the least. I love my students, but getting them to want to improve themselves academically is like pulling teeth, especially on the high school level. Let me know if there's anything I can do to make your own struggle easier :).

Thank you both for your kind words!

Hi, Anonymous! Blogger isn't letting me respond to individual comments so I just have to write a new comment and hope that you know I'm responding to your comment about prescriptivist grammarians who believe standards are unchanging. I'm more of a descriptive linguist personally and feel it's empowering for people to know that in English speaking countries (as opposed to French), grammar is determined by popular usage. I love how dynamic language is!

It is also absolutely vital that people understand that they WILL be judged by others based on the quality of their writing. I make sure my students know that I make no judgements about them as people based on their errors, but they have to be prepared to face society and its standards (unfair as they may be). I remember walking into a faculty lounge and hearing the instructors discuss the flyer that a receptionist had placed in our mailboxes. The comments were harsh, unforgiving, and mean. They nitpicked her grammar and spelling errors and said that the flyer was a clear indication of why she was working as a secretary at a small community college campus and not working elsewhere.

Mercedes needs to know that its reputation is being tarnished by a poor grammar decision made in its coupe commercial. The company has a target audience and reputation that it wants to project and needs to make language decisions based on them; I would be much more lenient grammatically on a company that was targeting a more linguistically relaxed demographic. Language change is usually effected by the masses or by a very influential company or individual (think someone like Stephen King) and if Mercedes was trying to effect change in the use of "less doors," it needed to be much more obvious about it because for the average viewer, the grammar "error" was just plain sloppy.

I hate how unfair society is in its judgment of people based on their writing. While I can't help anyone by sympathizing, I can try and help people make the best impression they can make by imparting some advice on how to write well.

This isn't even a high school grammar is from the 5th grade. My husband and I cringe every time we see that commercial.

I'm so glad an associate pointed me to this blog (not coincidentally as the subject of the referenced Mercedes ad was my reason for plinking her in the first place). Since my first viewing of the commercial, and every time since, it's driven me crazy that it's voiced the way it is. And because it IS Mercedes that has condoned it. I understand (previous anonymous') point of view on how petty it must be for (us) to find fault with this grammatical error, and reading his/her argument, my ire is quelled a bit. When I remember, however, that, as a publicly educated person, my future depended on my 12 years of English classes (I would not have been allowed to graduate had I not passed all that gibberish). I am repeatedly flabbergasted that the language and it's proper usage now has no place in even highly regarded news organizations (I hear & see typoes/grammatical errors frequently in most of the big networks) & politics. I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds it a minor tragedy. Regards..

For what it's worth, although my wife and I are fans of German automotive engineering, we bought two Lexus LS sedans instead of Mercedes Benz this time around - all because of this ad.

If they don't know the difference between "less" and "fewer" I am concerned that they may also not know the difference between high quality and low quality as it relates to design and manufacturing.

It cost them two sales this time. Went with Lexus instead.

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