Grammar Grab Bag: Clues from a Counting Horse

GrammarGrabBag_2016

In the early 1900s, a horse known as Clever Hans went on tour in Germany with his owner, Wilhelm von Osten. Von Osten claimed that Clever Hans could not only count, but he could add, subtract, multiply, divide, tell time and even work with fractions. There was a lot of debate surrounding whether or not Clever Hans could actually count (spoiler alert: he couldn’t) and some very interesting psychological research came about as a result.

But what does all of that have to do with grammar? Quite a bit actually. When describing quantities, it’s common to talk about them with words like, “less,” “fewer,” “more than” or “over.” However, these are not interchangeable words, though they are often used that way, and it all has to do with whether or not the item described could be counted.

Could Clever Hans Count? 

You can remember the difference between “less” and “fewer” this way: If Clever Hans could count it – always assuming Clever Hans can count, of course – then you should use “fewer.” If it could not be counted, regardless of whether Clever Hans was truly capable of counting, then you should use “less.”

For example, you can count the number of Snickers bars in the candy drawer, but you can’t count “candy.” If Madison ate a large number of Snickers from the drawer, you might say “There are fewer Snickers now that Madison ate them all.”  You might also say “There is less candy in the drawer now and we need to refill it with more Snickers.” Both of these statements would be correct.

If you’ve kept up with the Grammar Grab Bag, though, you know that there is always an exception to this rule. Time, money, distance and weight are all things that you might think of as “countable.” After all, it was said that Clever Hans could tell time. However, these things all use “less” when describing their quantity.

The Hidden Cues

I’ve already mentioned that Clever Hans could not actually count, but he was able to answer questions with very high accuracy. So how did he do it? It turns out that when Clever Hans reached the right number of hoof stomps that correlated to the correct answer, there was a slight but perceptible lessening of tension in Wilhelm von Osten, which cued the horse to stop counting.

Similarly, there is a very easy shortcut that does not actually require you to determine if the item you are describing could be counted by an early 20th century horse: whether the item is singular or plural. If it’s singular, use “less.” If it’s plural, use “fewer.”

Not only does this work for traditional countable things, like Snickers, vs non-countable things, like candy, but it also applies to the exceptions. We talk about time, money, weight and distance in singular terms:

  • My boss says 8 hours is a full workday
  • A $50 prize is a great motivator.
  • A 100 pound dog is a little big for an apartment.
  • Alex believes 5 miles is not too far to walk for a Pokémon.

So if you’re stuck on whether to use “less” or “fewer,” just think about whether the thing you’re describing is singular or plural and that will tell you what to do.

Watch out for Pitfalls

You may have noticed that I referenced “more than” and “over” at the beginning of this post, but not at all throughout the body of the post. Although there used to be a similar distinction between these two words, a few years ago the AP Style announced that they were doing away with this distinction. There are still plenty of people who are not up to date on this rule (myself included, until I started researching this post), so don’t be surprised if editors continue to “correct” this “mistake.” But feel free to fire back that the AP Style no longer makes any such distinction and therefore you don’t either!