50 Words or Less

By Maeve Maddox

In a recent post I have the following sentence:

Conveying a coherent report in 50 words or less is quite a feat, and the writers in my paper usually do an amazingly good job of it.

Several readers wrote to ask if I shouldn’t have written “50 words or fewer.”

I appreciate readers who gently point out my errors so that I can have them corrected before too many more people see them. In the case of “50 words or less,” however, I’m on solid ground.

The distinction between less and fewer when used to qualify nouns was codified in the 18th century.

Fewer is used to qualify countable nouns:

Channel 10 runs fewer commercials than Channel 5.
Fewer people are in touch with Nature these days.

Less is used to qualify uncountable nouns:

She loves her new job, but she is earning less money.
With the new standards, children may read less literature in school.

There are exceptions to this rule.

Less is used to describe units, such as time, money, and distance:

I’ve spent less than two hours on my homework today.
We owe less than $1,000 on the car.
Our new house is located less than three miles from the school.

When the relevant “items” (e.g., hours, dollars, miles) are seen as a unit and not as individual items, less is the word to use.

A few years ago the UK store chain TESCO, overwhelmed by grammar sticklers, changed its express lane signs from “10 items or less” to “Up to 10 items.”

According to Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford, 2008), they needn’t have done so:

Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read 5 items or less (which refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read 5 items or fewer (which emphasizes individuality, surely not the intention).

The usage “50 words or less” falls into the same category as the check-out sign.

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5 Responses to “50 Words or Less”

  • Rich Wheeler

    I’m not comfortable with the explanation that ’50 words or less’ is treated as a unit. Suppose we move the condition ‘less than’ from after 50 to before it. Would we also accept “less than 51 words” because it seen as a whole?

    TANGENT: The use of “unit” in

    >”When the relevant ‘items’ (e.g., hours, dollars, miles)
    > are seen as a unit and not as individual items…”

    took me a moment to decode. First, I do not see hours or miles as ‘items.’

    Second, ‘unit’ means something treated as an aggregate or as a whole, but it also means a standard of measurement. An hour, a dollar, and a mile are units of time, money, and distance. Using whole, collective, or aggregate would have prevented the ambiguity.

    BACK ON TOPIC: Items can be counted. As the author said, if the emphasis is on the individual items, then we must use ‘fewer.’

    Another rule for identifying when to use “less” states that you should use it when the measure is continuously variable.

    > Siri says I ran less than a mile, this morning.
    > I still owe less than $100,000 in taxes. (It could be 93,492 dollars and 67.8 cents, which indicates a continuous, and probably continuously increasing amount.)

    The reason ‘less than’ insinuates itself probably spills over from math. One would read C <= 9 as "C is less than or equal to 9…" (unless this were a math class taught by an Oxford English major).

  • venqax

    I have some problems with this as an enumeration of a rule. Units are countable things.

    Less is used to describe units, such as time, money, and distance:

    Time, money and distance are not units, but things that are measured BY units. Hours, dollars, and miles are such units and are countable. So, while you would say, “less time, less money, and less distance”, by the units rule you would have to say “fewer hours, fewer dollars, and fewer miles”. Is the intent to say that units of time, money, and distance are exceptions to the unit rule? I could buy that more easily (or with greater ease). Using the examples, I would agree that “We owe less than $1,000” is correct as an idiom, if nothing else. “We owe fewer than $1,000” would be politely described as pedantic. But I’m not seeing the rule…

    When the relevant “items” (e.g., hours, dollars, miles) are seen as a unit and not as individual items, less is the word to use.

    I am not sure what that means. Are they saying that $1,000 is a unit? Likewise, each of 2 hours, 3 miles, or 10 items is a unit?

  • thebluebird11

    I am still not happy about the “10 items or less” thing in a supermarket. In order for this rule to be enforced, people have to count each item in their carts and see if they meet the criterion for being in the express lane. It is quite clear: If one counts 10 items, one may be in the express lane. If one counts 11 items, one may not be in the express lane. So it is not an aggregate, and certainly not a case of things (items) that can’t be counted. On the contrary, they MUST be counted. The store is not asking for an estimate or a guesstimate, and not asking for the aggregate “size” of the pile in the cart. One huge package of toilet paper is still only one item, but 11 individual boxes of paperclips are 11 individual items. Granted, if the cashier is so inclined, 11 boxes of one KIND of item can be rung up as “one” item (“11 @ $1.49”) and presto you’re done. Nevertheless, although it bothers me to see “10 items or less,” and it would be best to avoid this problem by having signs that say “Up to 10 items” (does that mean 9, or 10?), I understand that this is kind of a colloquialism already, and I ignore it. I have way more important things to think about!

  • Donnell Walton

    The misunderstanding here appears to be around the word countable. Countable refers to having a finite or integral number of elements. In your examples of hours, money and distance, fractional amounts are possible, so that “less” is acceptable. For example, 1.5 hours is less than 2 hours.

    Since the words are countable with natural numbers, fewer is correct.

  • Donnell Walton

    It should be 50 words or fewer. Words are countable in that fractional amounts don’t matter. This is different for the rule exceptions of time, money and distance. For example, saying less than two hours is acceptable since you can work 1.5 hours.

    Since only an integral number of works are possible, using fewer is appropriate.

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