This very interesting observation about the use of comparatives was posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by a member who goes by the username Jhinx22:
“People often don’t know when to use ‘fewer’ and when to use ‘less’ in a sentence. ‘Fewer’ is used when referring to people or things in plural, as in this sentence: ‘Fewer students are opting to study science-related subjects.’ ‘Less,’ on the other hand, is used when referring to something that can’t be counted: ‘People want to spend less time in traffic jams.’
“I was therefore confused when I came across this example in the Forum: ‘“Why are there less women CEOs?” asks the professor.’
“Shouldn’t it be ‘fewer’ instead?”
My reply to Jhinx22:
You hit the nail right on the head when you said that people often don’t know when to use “fewer” and when to use “less.” The general rule is, of course, to use “less” if we are talking comparatively about an amount of something that can’t be counted, as “time” in your example, “People want to spend less time in traffic jams”; and to use “fewer” if we are talking comparatively about a number of people or things that are countable, as “students” in your other example, “Fewer students are opting to study science-related subjects.”
In actual usage, though, we soon discover that this general rule doesn’t always work—or at least not work very nicely—for quite a few things. While “money” is obviously countable, for instance, we don’t say “I have fewer than five-hundred pesos in my savings account” but say “I have less than than five-hundred pesos in my savings account” instead. And while “minute” is evidently countable as a unit of time, I’d say “Less than half of the 180 minutes of that atrocious stage play was worth watching” and definitely not “Fewer than half of the 180 minutes of that atrocious stage play was worth watching.”
There are obviously other grammatical or semantic forces at work when we make the choice between “fewer” and “less” in our written or spoken English. It’s therefore perfectly understandable that you got confused when you came across that sentence construction in the Forum that used the questionable “less” instead of the prescribed “fewer.”
For sure, your suggested sentence construction is more grammatically airtight than “‘Why are there less women CEOs?’ asks the professor,” but I think it’s only in the context of a comparison against a well-known, numerically established number of women CEOs in, say, a specific industry within a certain location.
For instance, assuming that it has been definitely established that there are 8,000 male CEOs in Metro Manila’s telecommunications industry against only 500 women CEOs in that local universe of CEOs, then given that level of certainty, the use of the comparative “fewer” would be unquestionable and that statement should definitely read as follows: “‘Why are there fewer women CEOs?’ asks the professor.”
I would think though that when comparing unknown, not well-established, or merely assumed or conjectural quantities, “less” might just be preferable to “fewer” and better-sounding at that. Take this hypothetical example: “In that progressive island-nation in which you imagine that female executives outnumber male executives by a ratio of 100:15, why would there be less women CEOs?” (I know that grammar prescriptivists would accept that construction only if the phrase “than male CEOs” is added to the tail end of that sentence, but no matter.)
I’m not saying, though, that “fewer” is wrong in that sentence, only that “less” becomes an irresistible if not an unquestionably viable usage as well. Indeed, the shade of difference between “fewer” and “less” becomes marginal in such situations, and I personally don’t think I’d be so embarrassed as to lose sleep if somebody caught me instinctively using “less” for that comparative.
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