Word Matters Podcast

The Controversial Cases of 'Fewer' vs. 'Less' and 'Uninterested' vs. 'Disinterested'

Episode 35: 'Fewer' vs. 'Less'

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You might've seen the sign at the grocery store: "12 items or less." Depending on what you've been taught, you might also have considered the sign a grave grammatical sin. Today we'll look at one of the most popular "rules" in the English language. Plus, is there a difference between being 'uninterested' and being 'disinterested'?

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Neil Serven: When we're at the grocery store, we see a sign as the express lane, it says 12 items or less. People say, this is grammatically wrong.

Ammon Shea: There is no reason why uninterested should have one set meaning and disinterested should have another.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, two words with a complex overlap and a potentially vexatious grocery checkout line. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

If you want to say that you are neutral and unbiased about something, would you be disinterested or uninterested? And what if you genuinely care not a wit? Here's Ammon Shea on the messy history of this interesting pair.

Ammon Shea: And do you find that you have to pause and marshal your resources before deciding whether you're going to use the word uninterested or disinterested? Do you feel that little frisson of uncertainty or apprehension before using it? Or do you just not really care?

Emily Brewster: I have to think about it for a moment. It's pretty close to automatic, but I always question myself.

Neil Serven: There's a slight bump for me. I have to think about it.

Emily Brewster: I have to think of a jury.

Ammon Shea: I feel like I have a case of the yips. I think about it and then I screw it up. But yeah, I think Emily's evocation of the jury, for some people it's the judge that you hope for a disinterested jury, meaning impartial. Free from bias rather than an uninterested jury, which is that they just don't care.

Emily Brewster: The uninterested jury would be full of people looking at their phones, for example.

Ammon Shea: Right. Now this is one of those usage questions that I think is interesting, not because of the usage question itself, but because of the larger questions about language and usage and who cares about these things and why do we care so much that it brings up? For instance, there is no reason why uninterested should have one set meeting and disinterested should have another. They both use very similar prefixes of negation. There's no inherently logical reason for why one should be one and the other should be the other and that they should never overlap, which is the view of many people. Many people feel very strongly that uninterested and it should only mean bored and disinterested should only mean impartial. And one of the things, again, that is interesting about this is that when the words first entered the language, they had set meanings, but they were the opposite of the one that people want them to have today. So when we first see uninterested, it's in Walter Montagu's The Shepherd's Paradise in 1659. And he says, "Your uninterested prayers may challenge." He's using it in the modern sense of disinterested. I have found here, "So uninterested at counselor that he asks nothing but words to gratify him."

Peter Sokolowski: It's enough context to know.

Ammon Shea: Right. He's very clearly saying he's talking about an impartial counselor. And a few decades later, it flips over. And similarly, when we first see disinterested, it's used in the sense of "indifferent." It's even used right next to it in Thomas Comber's 1612 work A Companion to the Temple and Closet, subtitled a help to publick and private devotion, in an Essay upon the daily Offices of the Church. This is from 1612, he writes, "But having thus cleared the way to all indifferent and disinterested persons, it is time to speak briefly of the design," et cetera. And so he is equating disinterested with indifferent, the modern sense of uninterested. So if these words had this somewhat distinct meeting, and then at some point they decide to flip. And at some point after that, the usage gods, whoever they are, decided this is the real way we want to stick with this. And it's kind of been a losing battle ever since because people have always confused or misused these words and to my mind does not really show that much sign of working itself out. I don't know what you guys think as editors who work on defining this, you spend much more time than I do looking at citational evidence. Do you think that this is on its path to some kind of finality here? Are we still just muddying things up?

Emily Brewster: How long has the current distinction been taught? Do you know that?

Ammon Shea: I don't, but I would assume at least since the early 20th century.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm just looking at Webster 1828 at the entry for disinterested sense two, "Not influenced or dictated by private advantage, a disinterested decision." And then it says in parentheses, "This word is more generally used than uninterested." So he notes that these words are crossing semantically in 1828. So at least there was an awareness. And the question I have, is it arbitrary? Is this distinction we make, which might be helpful. It's a distinction I make. Most people and of course good editors would always distinguish these two words.

Ammon Shea: I think it's arbitrary based on the fact that they previously had opposite meaning. And then there was also a French-English dictionary from 1684, Guy Miege, his dictionary, he uses both of them as definitions for the French désintéressé.

Peter Sokolowski: Désintéressé.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. Okay. So he's using them both within the same sense as the definition.

Peter Sokolowski: So for him, they were synonymous.

Ammon Shea: Entirely synonymous.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Ammon Shea: So we see them as distinct. We see them as synonymous and then we see them as distinct again in a different way. At no point in this early use, in this 16th- and 17th-century use, have I come across anybody saying these are the distinctions, and this is why. They're just kind of floating along and being used as we typically use words, which have these prefixes of negation, the dis- and the un-.

Neil Serven: That's where my hesitation comes in is maybe I'm speaking with a little more knowledge of an awareness of the parts and how the parts are interacting with each other. I know in a flat sense both un- and dis- are negative prefixes and to some people that is all we think of them, as negative prefixes. To me, dis- has this sense of removal and disattachment. Like something was once connected and now is not, like the word disassociate. You once associated and now you do not. There seems to be like this prying action when I think of dis-. So when I say disinterested, I start to wonder, was this something that I did have an interest at one point, and now I do not? Or is there some other application of the prefix to the verb interest that is working there? And so that is where my hesitation comes in. And also just the superficial knowledge that the words do have two different meanings and then it's a which one is which?

Emily Brewster: It's interesting that the fact that what other words are being commonly used that have these same prefixes can affect the semantic content of words, right? They have impacts on one another. So the fact that disassociated, that psychology sense that has become much more common in everyday use, in non-specialized use, the fact that it is very possible that that could affect this understanding of the word disinterested. It's nothing more than speculative until you actually look at how common these words are. And even then it would be hard to have any really definitive information about the impact of that. Certainly in your mind, this idea of how dis's function is and how that function is distinct from the function of un-. I'm sure that comes into play in many people's minds.

Peter Sokolowski: That makes me think of the fact that un- is old English and dis- is Latin. So like so many things in English, we have two words for the same thing, because one has a root in one language and one has a root in the other. Is disinterested the older of the two forms? Because I think dis- was applied to Latin-based words as a matter of course, until these words became so Anglicized that they were interchangeable.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that's interesting about that is that earlier in the 17th century, both were disinteressed without a T. I-N-T-E-R-E-S-S-E-D.

Peter Sokolowski: More like the French-

Ammon Shea: Yeah, more like the French. And so there was a less of a breakdown from French to English, both dis- and un- were used in front of interessed earlier, and with the earliest meanings that disinterested and uninterested had, which the meanings which we now think of as the wrong meanings. I don't think there was an old English distinction in the terms of the prefixes in early-

Peter Sokolowski: No, but it's interesting that we have these two prefixes and others. Emily just made me think about words that start with dis- and un- and that do have a vast semantic difference-

Ammon Shea: Disambiguate and unambiguous are very, very different.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Well, how about disgraceful and ungraceful, right? No one would ever mistake those.

Ammon Shea: No, that's true.

Neil Serven: Well, disgrace sort of has its own...

Peer Sokolowski: Yes, its own semantic field.

Neil Serven: Its own element there that is then gets attached and then...

Peter Sokolowski: I'm sure that's exactly it.

Ammon Shea: Unattached and disattached are very, very different.

Neil Serven: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: As for whether these words disinterested and uninterested will shift back at some point, in some ways it's really up to the speakers of English. And historically that would mean that it was up to the gatekeepers, the editors of English. We do still see this distinction made in published, edited text. The judge, the jury, in these legal senses, the desire for somebody to be impartial in a situation is still very much tied to disinterested.

Ammon Shea: That is true. But I guess I have a vague feeling and I'm kind of going against what I was saying earlier. I have a vague feeling that they are becoming more and more just kind of mixed up with each other. In part, this is because I see more and more people complaining about the use. One of the things I really like to say again and again about the kind of prescriptive viewpoint on language is that it's fine if you want to distinguish between these words. And I think that's great. I think it's having a specificity of meaning and language is to be admired. It's very useful in this and that. I would say however, to the people that complain about this vociferously, that if you find yourself saying everybody misuses this word, what you're actually describing is semantic shift. You're describing that the word has changed meaning and you are describing the rationale for why we put this new sentence to the dictionary because everybody uses it is the way that we feel. We don't say everybody misuses the word if it's in fact everybody. We just say the word has changed meaning, and that's a new sense to be required.

Peter Sokolowski: And I have to say, unselfconscious use of this word that I see on Twitter, for example, supports your hypothesis because I think edited prose still heavily weights this distinction, but unedited prose shows a kind of carefree, quick use of the word. And I see it in clear contexts where I would use uninterested and the word is disinterested if it's used.

Ammon Shea: And do you find that you typically are able to infer from context what the meaning is?

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah.

Ammon Shea: So you don't fall into a rabbit hole of confusion, based on this.

Peter Sokolowski: No. No one's trying to confuse the reader. That's not why we write.

Emily Brewster: And the fact is that unedited prose is now something that we all encounter to a greater degree than has ever been encountered by speakers of the language, the amount of unedited prose we would see and now it's most of what we see.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's one reason why for our usage dictionary, for example, one of the richest sources of evidence was the published posthumous correspondence of famous writers. People like Mark Twain, for example, these were things that did not go through the publishing process of copy-editing and everything else. And so you got to see this sort of more casual use of people who were otherwise known as very good writers. And a lot of the examples in our usage dictionary come from the correspondence of writers, not from their works.

Emily Brewster: That's right, because their competence as users of the language was unquestioned. And we now know that actually any native speaker is a competent speaker of the language.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Ammon Shea: It used to be one of my favorite things to do is find usage writers who had complained about language use and then read their letters, looking for examples.

Peter Sokolowski: And you aways found them.

Ammon Shea: And I always do. That was Dwight Macdonald, who was one of the most famous and eloquent critics of our Third International Dictionary in 1961. He wrote some really spirited and denunciatory things about it, including questioning our use of the word ain't, our definition of the word. And then of course in his letters, he uses the word ain't, "I'm 67 now (ain't no spring chicken)." He used exactly in the sense that we defined it and that he kind of castigated. That's a petty thing, but you know, we're petty people.

Neil Serven: He would say, you'd be using it ironically, right? Like he has this right to use it. And show it off-

Ammon Shea: I think we said jocular rather than ironic, which is kind of a little bit-

Neil Serven: And Peter, you were talking about how we often had the evidence of writers letters to each other as kind of this storehouse of words that did not get through the editorial process and so sort of had this pure form of exposure than a word might if it's in a published book somewhere. The thing about those writers is that they were also trying to show off for each other.

Peter Sokolowski: A lot.

Neil Serven: That's what writers do. And that's why writers write to each other. They're trying to bounce things off each other and show off and just try to up the ante a little bit when it comes to language mastery. And so that's another reason that those letters are such great evidence warehouses, because there's sort of this image of them just trying to wink at each other and just try to get away with something that they could not get away with in a book.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Mastery and playfulness. In terms of difficulties, at least English does not disappoint.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with two more problematic words. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at WordMatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at NEPM.org.

Emily Brewster: It's enough to ruin any grammarian's trip to the supermarket: that pesky sign reading "12 items or less" should of course read "12 items or fewer." Or should it? Next up, we have Neil Serven on the less and fewer controversy.

Neil Serven: A popular grammatical issue or peeve that comes up is the distinction between fewer and less. And I think one of the reasons this is popular is because it comes up in our daily lives quite often. When we're at the grocery store, we see a sign as the express lane, it says "12 items or less." And people say this is grammatically wrong because the rule that you should follow is that if you are referring to items that are countable, something that is distinct and countable, you should use fewer. And if you are using a mass noun, things that are not countable, or a non-count noun, you should use less. And the grocery store right there on the sign, almost inevitably just defies this rule and says "12 items or less." They do this at every store, except for Whole Foods, for some reason. At Whole Foods, I think they say, at least my Whole Foods, they say "12 items or fewer." That is because they can afford to. They can afford the grammatically correct sign because they charge you $7 or something for Newman-O's.

Emily Brewster: It suggests that they also have a surfeit of grammar peevers who work at their stores.

Neil Serven: Perhaps.

Ammon Shea: Or who shop at the stores and make their displeasure known.

Neil Serven: That might be the reason. For the most part of this objection makes sense. Because the rule is that a count noun, that is something that you can count individually and distinctly, like four cars, 101 Dalmatians, seven sins, for such nouns you would use fewer as the modifier, whereas for mass nouns or noncount nouns, like sugar, like mud, things that can not be delineated or counted, then you would use less. And so item being a count noun, it is counted right there on the sign, 12 items or less, it is understandable to have the objection that it should say "12 items or fewer."

Emily Brewster: Something about putting it in the phrase that does something that a native speaker won't do in another context, you would never say the recipe calls for fewer sugar. You just would never say that. You would say the recipe calls for less sugar.

Ammon Shea: Right. But there are circumstances in which we all default to the wrong one. Like if you went through a grocery store and say, "How much is that can of chickpeas?" Nobody would say, "How much do you want to pay?" "Well, I'd like to pay $5 or fewer." You say, "$5 or less, if I could." I mean, "How much are you willing to pay for this?" $5 or less. I can't imagine saying fewer for a count number of dollars.

Neil Serven: Money is an instance where you do not follow the rule. You say less instead of fewer. And that is probably because in the case of dollars, you're subdividing it even more, there are points along that scale. Two dollars, it could be fewer than five dollars, but if the amount is $2.59 cents, it makes more sense to say that's less than five dollars than to say fewer. And we do the same thing with time. We say it took less than thirty minutes to finish a project. We don't say fewer than thirty minutes because it might've taken twenty-seven minutes and thirty seconds.

Ammon Shea: What about distance? Do we do it with that too?

Neil Serven: I tend to hear less unless it's really being assertive about the unit.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, absolutely. Because you'd say, "Oh, it's less than a mile away." Or it's, "Less than three miles away." You wouldn't say, "It's fewer than three miles." You could, you'd be understood. But that might seem a little precious.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Neil Serven: I can say I ran fewer than five miles if I ran four or I ran three and I wanted to kind of just draw attention to the unit of miles and five that I'm talking about. But for the most part, I would hear less than five miles. The objection to the use of less in places of fewer seems to have originated with a critic named Robert Baker. Written about a lot of his language peeves and objections, particularly in a book called Reflections on the English Language, which was published in 1770. In regard to less and fewer, he says, "This word is most commonly used in speaking of a number." That is fewer. In regard to less he is saying, "This word is most commonly used in speaking of a number where I should think fewer would do better. No fewer than a hundred appears to me, not only more elegant than no less than a hundred, but more strictly proper." Well in writing this, he already acknowledged that less was the more common use for numbers. So he's trying to make this assignation of fewer is the prescription that he recommends it should be more common. That also points to the fact that it wasn't really that way and human nature is just to go with less. Fewer on its own, it's sort of an odd word. The adjective few also ties to a pronoun, few. If you're talking about how many reasons can you think of something, "I can think of a few." I think the idea of great ability, doesn't always come obvious to people with the word fewer and fewest, even though it is used in terms of like scarce and rare, almost in the same way. And those words can be gradable. I think with fewer there's some hesitation, the Oxford English Dictionary points to an interesting English, regional and Scottish use where few was used for mass noun, where you can invite someone to stay and have a few broth.

Ammon Shea: That's nice. I like that.

Neil Serven: Just to have a little soup.

Ammon Shea: I feel like this is all interesting, but we haven't spent enough time talking trash about Robert Baker. If he is, in fact, the true originator of this rule, I think that has some bearing on this session because Robert Baker is what we would technically refer to as a dope. I've read his book. I'm sorry to say. And one of the things that really stuck with me was his introduction where he baldly states, "I have paid no Regard to Authority." He says, "I have censored even our best Penmen." And he says, or he writes, "Not being acquainted with any Man of Letters, I have consulted Nobody." He brags about the fact that "I quitted the school at 15" and about how he has no money to buy books so he didn't really read any. And this is a source of a number of kind of modern day peeves or distinguishings between language. This is the same book from which we get that different than, and different from, and different too should really be worked out and placed in different categories.

Emily Brewster: Ammon, I too have read that introduction and I have to come to his defense, he has named his book Reflections on the English Language and it is not his fault that people have taken him at his word and taught these rules that were merely his own predilections and preferences.

Neil Serven: It's funny because Shakespeare did not use fewer all that much. I only found three examples of that word in use at all. And they all occur in the Henry plays, which is sort of interesting. And in one instance in Henry V, this character Fluellen, who is this Welsh captain. Fluellen is a comic character in this otherwise somewhat serious historical play. And he's greeted by this person named Gower who was rather terse and just kind of greets them with a nod, says, "Captain" and Fluellen says, "So in the name of Jesus Christ, speak fewer." So it's almost seems to be like this hypercorrection that Shakespeare is inserting to further make fun of this character.

Peter Sokolowski: Just to circle back. This is this kind of thing that people notice. If it's on, for example, those grocery store signs. It strikes me as a little precious also to have "15 items or fewer." It's fine. I don't disapprove, but I don't disapprove of "15 items or less either." It's perfectly fine with me. It's like almost like a Shibboleth like it stands for care for language.

Ammon Shea: It's exactly what it does, because I think in no cases are you running any significant risk of confusion. Whether it's 15 items or fewer or less nobody's going to think, did they secretly mean 15 items or more? No it's either a greater than or less than.

Peter Sokolowski: And can you imagine being the cashier in one such line and hearing maybe two or three or four complaints a day about the sign above your head? Maybe that's what triggered the newer signs that say fewer. I've seen both. And again, I sort of smile when I see fewer because I think I'm glad you pay attention to this, but it's not really that useful or enlightening a usage argument.

Ammon Shea: Right. But people do feel very, very strongly about it. And I think it is a signifier for care with language, more than anything else.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. There we go.

Emily Brewster: Or snobbery.

Ammon Shea: Could be both. I try to restrain myself somewhat in my fervent descriptivist rants because there is something lovely about care for language.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Ammon Shea: And we do applaud passion for language in any circumstance. And it's easy for me to kind of climb up on my own descriptivist soap box and say, "Ha ha ha, they were using this since King Alfred." And nobody cares about that. People care that they're making a distinction and that is lovely. Precision in language is a delightful thing. I try to remind myself of that because otherwise I'm just another guy playing Gotcha!, saying, "We know something that you don't" and that's not an interesting way of approaching language.

Neil Serven: I think one of the factors though, is that this particular rule seems to get picked on more than others. And it feels unfairly imbalanced. It's along the line of split infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition or something like that, where it's easy to identify on a page when we see it. If you're a teacher, it's the kind of thing that would get circled with a red pen. And so it sort of enters into our mind as something to kind of look out for, kind of a red flag, whereas there's other errors of language or other inconsistencies of language that we could just as easily call out but don't because they are not made apparent to us. We were not trained to really keep an eye out for them. And so they aren't really a signifier in the same way.

Peter Sokolowski: Fewer and less is sort of the gateway drug of peevery.

Emily Brewster: It does function as this Shibboleth this way to signal who knows the rules and who doesn't know the rules. But I think that what we see is that functionally "items or less" functions as an idiom, right? Like it is its own thing in this particular context, "15 items or less," it's an idiom in that case. And the argument really for that is that we don't hear native speakers being confused about other applications of these uses.

Peter Sokolowski: That's totally true.

Emily Brewster: Native speakers in general understand they apply fewer and less the way that a native speaker applies these terms is consistent with the rules in general.

Ammon Shea: You're absolutely right about the idiomatic use of this and that works in other idiomatic settings. The one that comes to mind is "Put your best foot forward." You can't have best of two. You have to have better of two. Even the strictest adherent to "two must be better" still says, "Put your best foot forward" as an idiomatic use, which subverts the rule.

Peter Sokolowski: There's this concept in teaching English of chunks or chunking. Emily, you just made me think of this and I've never thought of "items or less" or "fewer" as chunks, but they are chunks of language. And that means it's a sequence of words that always go together and that natively and naturally fit. I totally believe that "items or less" is such a chunk.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at NEPM.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit Merriam-Webster.com Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and, Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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