Fewer distinctions, less diversity

I found this article from The Press while searching the Internet to see whether I was the only one annoyed at the National Party billboards around town (it’s election season in NZ now). One such billboard says “More doctors. More nurses. Less bureaucrats.” One of my senior colleagues doesn’t seem to know the distinction between “less” (a smaller amount of an uncountable noun) and “fewer” (a small number of a countable noun), but since he also doesn’t know the difference between “criterion” and “criteria”, I assumed that it was just isolated ignorance. However a major political party presumably knows it target audience well enough to mimic their speech, so I got more concerned. The Press article also seems to indicate that “fewer” is not as commonly used as I had thought.

The distinction seems to have been formalized only about 1770. It is a useful one. For example, “less qualified nurses are being hired” is confusing (unless we write “less-qualified nurses” to describe nurses of lower skill level). I don’t think it is the most essential distinction to make in English, but I also doubt that the distinction is being lost (as this seems to suggest) because of principled reasoning. I suspect the main reason for decline is purely ignorance that there even is a distinction. If you have fewer distinctions that you know how to make in your language, it becomes harder to think in a nuanced manner. I also want to know whether those not using “fewer” ever use the word “few” – I am all for changes that make language more logical, but removing an obvious comparative doesn’t seem to fall into that category.

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