Thursday, March 24, 2011

I shouldn't have to teach a New York Times reporter about applesauce

I expect to be 65 years old next month. Yesterday I showed up for an appointment promptly at 9:30 a.m. -- but I was 24 hours early. I sometimes forget to mail letters, take all of my pills or put my cellphone in my pocket.

But I seldom forget things my schoolteachers taught me when I was a little kid.

One lesson I remember from second grade (probably in 1953 or '54) is when to use "less" and when to use "fewer."

It was very simple then, and it's very simple now.

  • "Less" goes with things that are measured or weighed, like apple sauce.
  • "Fewer" goes with things that are counted, like apples (or bottles of sauce).
You can have less wine, but fewer bottles and fewer drinks. You can have less time to travel, but fewer days for your trip. Although I did not learn this corollary in second grade, "less" also applies to concepts, like "less freedom." And although I've heard some arguments to the contrary, I still believe that the express checkout lanes in supermarkets should be for buying “10 Items or Fewer,” not “Less.”

Apparently New York Times reporter Ben Sisario did not learn what I learned in second grade. Even worse, neither did his copyeditor.

Subscribers can be counted, so they get the "fewer" treatment.

(Applesauce photo from Mott's, of course. Apples photo from

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