Monday, 6 July 2020

Less cheese, fewer eggs...

No, not an evangelical call to veganism, although I wouldn't mind that. It could as easily be "less cabbage, fewer peas."

Any idea what I'm talking about?

Image by Frank Schulenburg
Image by Vmenkov
This is a post about "count nouns" and "non-count" or "mass nouns." "Cheese" is a mass noun, so if you want not so much of it, you would say "less cheese." "Eggs" is a count noun, so if you are not so keen on them, you'd say "fewer eggs."

Of course, everyone will understand what you mean if you say "less eggs." So why I am talking about a rule here? It's not really a rule; it's a convention of Standard English. And I like them. I also like helping people to know what they are and use them if they want to.

So what characterises a count noun? For a start, you can make it plural, by adding an "s." Now, you can make "cheese" plural too and talk about "cheeses" but then, crucially, you are talking about kinds of cheese, not cheese in general.

"I wish x would use less cheese in her cooking" versus "I like most cheeses apart from goat."

But nobody says "fewer cheese"; the problem arises with count nouns.

"I wish there were less repeats on TV." As I said before, perfectly intelligible and if that's what matters to you above style, then go ahead. But I imagine you come here because you'd like to know what is "correct" in Standard English. So it's "fewer repeats," "less rubbish."

1 comment:

Lynne Benton said...

Well said, Mary - this is one of our major quibbles, and one which inevitably has us shouting at the television "Fewer, not less!"