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.