Last night, Tomasz Schafernaker, one of the BBC’s meteorologists and currently sporting a hairstyle that would have looked great in the 1980s when mullets were fashionable, finished his forecast with the words fewer showers expected tomorrow. I am waiting for the pedants among us to say he should have said less showers given that grammar advisory websites such as Grammarly, Grammar Girl, and even Wikipedia tell us that fewer is used for things you can count—fewer biscuits in the biscuit tin—whereas less is used for things you can’t count—I drank less wine today than yesterday. Do you remember when, in 2008, Tesco supermarket was corrected by a schoolboy for stating 10 items or less in their fast-track checkout? They replaced the sign with Up to 10 items rather than the clumsier-sounding 10 items or fewer.
I used to get worked up by grammatical solecisms such as this but not anymore. On what basis do the grammar hounds say that fewer is for countables and less for non-countables? Where is the definitive rule book that makes this distinction? Does it exist and, if so, with what authority does it define the fewer versus less rule? And, in any case, who’s to say that somewhere someone does count the number of showers daily and can thus predict, grammatically correctly, that today the number of showers to be expected will be fewer than those that occurred yesterday?
Wiki’s article traces the distinction between the two words back to an opinion made by someone called Robert Baker in 1770. Historically and up until Baker’s opinion, less had always been used with countable objects. Baker’s opinion reversed this usage. Here’s what he said:
“This Word [less] is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. ‘No Fewer than a Hundred’ appears to me, not only more elegant than ‘No less than a Hundred’, but more strictly proper.”
Baker, Robert (1770). Reflections on the English Language: In the Nature of Vaugelas’s Reflections on the French. J. Bell. p. 55.
So, our Bob had an opinion that reversed common usage and became a rule that now causes grammarians heartache if abused and cost Tesco money to pay for a sign change.
It’s a rum world (where rum takes its old-fashioned UK adjectival meaning of strange or unusual).
I’m off to sit in the garden under an umbrella and count the number of showers today in order to confirm Tomasz’ predicted fewer showers yesterday. Oops, that won’t work. I didn’t count yesterday’s showers.