A class of grammatical mistakes made even by accomplished writers involves the description of a mass of stuff. Is the right word less or fewer, much or many? Sometimes the choice seems arbitrary, but there are some guidelines that can help you know the right word to use with certainty.
The problem can be summed up simply: we forget to distinguish between a large mass of something, or lots of small masses. Are we describing something we measure or something we count?
There are some things that we think of as whole or indefinite – time, liquids, distance. These are things we measure. Is a time or a distance long or short? Is this person taller or shorter than that person? How much is in a container? It is not a question of whether a glass is half empty or half full, but whether it contains milk or jelly beans.
If the glass contains milk, we can ask certain questions about it. Does this glass have more or less milk than that glass? How much milk is healthy for a child to have each day? What amount of milk can a cow be expected to give?
More, less, much, amount. These describe something we measure, and apply to things like time and distance and liquids.
But if the glass contains jelly beans, the questions change. Does this glass have more or fewer jelly beans than that glass? How many jelly beans make an acceptable snack? At a carnival, we can win a prize for guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar.
More, fewer, many, number. These describe things we count.
This seems simple enough. The word “more” is used in both cases which can be confusing, but not daunting. But, as the Chinese proverb reminds us, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. What happens when we break our mass into smaller parts?
Then we ask how many ounces are in the glass of milk? How many hours, how many miles, must pass before we reach our destination? Aren/t we still describing liquid, time and distance?
The answer is, not really. We are no longer describing the milk or the time or the distance, but are describing ounces, hours, and miles, which are things we count. When we think of it in that way, it falls into place. So that is the question when we go to choose a word – what is the precise thing we are describing, and is that something we measure or count. If we keep this in mind, we will choose the right word all the time.
You can read my previous articles about grammar here and here.