Language changes. Distinctions that were once important fade, becoming esoteric, then vanishing. Many people don’t notice such losses. Others do notice. Complaints about the current sad state of writing or the language are no new thing. For instance, Harvard started its expository writing program in 1897 because faculty members were so distressed at their students’ abysmal writing. One of their complaints: students seemed unable to keep straight the distinction between will and shall. The faculty was trying to hold back the tide on that one: the will/shall distinction has since been lost to American English. And a hundred years from now, the who/whom distinction will probably have gone the same way.
This post is about another fading distinction: that between adjectives appropriate for “countable” and “uncountable” nouns. Have you noticed that many supermarkets have changed the signs on their express lanes to read “10 items or fewer,” rather than “10 items or less”? That’s because the pedants were getting on their cases. You see, items are countable, and you use fewer with countable nouns. Less is for uncountable things, such as rice. (Tip: Uncountable nouns generally don’t have a separate plural form — rice, flour, sand, air, gasoline, music, advice, etc.)
So, let’s take beans as our countable noun and rice as our uncountable one:
This burrito is too big! I’d like less rice and fewer beans.
This burrito has a greater amount of rice and a greater number of beans.
I don’t have many beans or much rice. I need to go shopping!
The less/fewer distinction is the most abused, but you’ll also see amount attached to countable nouns. The linguistic trend seems to be the replacement of countable with uncountable forms. In a hundred years, fewer and number might sound precious or archaic, as shall does to modern American speakers. But for now, I think the distinction still holds. By a single, countable thread.