A Word, Please: Think you know the less-fewer rule? Think again.

Not long ago, I caught a snippet of a radio report about flooding in Colorado. Here's the first sentence I heard: "The number has dropped to fewer than 600 missing."

When people use the word "fewer" instead of "less," it's often because they're trying to be proper. That's fine. But in grammar, sometimes trying too hard to be proper creates more errors than not trying at all.

"Less" and "fewer" can work this way. If you don't pay them any attention, you often choose better than someone who's trying to use these words as properly as possible.

There are two common misperceptions about "less" and "fewer." The first is that they can never be synonyms. So any time you use "less" where you could have used "fewer," uptight types will think you made a mistake.

Check a dictionary and you'll see that one of the definitions of "less" is "fewer." Style and usage experts agree that these words sometimes overlap. So both "There were less people here this morning" and "There were fewer people here this morning" are technically correct. Chances are the "fewer" version sounds better to you, which tells you that "fewer" is indeed the better choice here.

The second misperception about these two words is the belief that "fewer" modifies things that can be counted — like cars, people and trips — while "less" modifies things measured in quantities — like milk, gasoline and courage.

So you could say there's less milk, less gasoline and less courage. But you'd talk of fewer cars, fewer people and fewer trips. These are called "mass nouns" and "count nouns." Count nouns are the ones that, like cars, can be counted: one car, two cars, three cars. Mass nouns cannot.

People who understand "less" and "fewer" in these terms have it partly right. The narrowest definitions of "less" and "fewer" suggest a distinction much like this. So all the examples above illustrate good usage. But really, the issue isn't about count nouns versus mass nouns. It's about plurals versus singulars.

If you want to follow the strictest guidelines on "less" and "fewer" (which, by the way, I do), here's the correct way to understand them: "Less" is for singular things. "Fewer" is for plural things.

About 99% of the time, this language makes no difference. Whether you use the singular-plural rule or the mass noun-count noun rule, you still end up with fewer cars and less courage.

But imagine this: You're in the express line at the grocery store, which according to the stickler rule is for 10 items or fewer (not less). But you have 11 items in your cart. So you take one out. Do you now have one fewer item? No. You have one less item because "item," unlike "items," is singular.

So what about the radio reporter's sentence, "The number has dropped to fewer than 600 missing"? I think he made the wrong choice. I suspect he was thinking that because "600" referred to "600 missing people," "fewer" was correct. But in fact, he needed a word to modify the noun "number," which is singular.

It doesn't matter if the number itself refers to 600 — or even if it's really about 600 missing people. The heart of the sentence is "the number is less than (something)." The word "number" is the subject and whatever comes after the linking verb modifies that subject.

And because "number" is singular, it should have been modified by "less," not "fewer." Had the reporter not been trying so hard to be proper, he might have made a more proper choice.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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