Fewer Less and More Fewer

By Mike Feinsilber

I write this in memory of William Zinsser, 92, whose obituary was in the papers Wednesday. He wrote On Writing Well, an inspirational and well-titled book.

Zinsser’s book doesn’t discuss the distinction between fewer and less, but a young lady selling vegetables at the New Morning Farm truck that twice a week in summers visits my Washington neighborhood from southern Pennsylvania did. (Did have something to say about fewer and less.)

The farm truck is busy enough to keep cashiers at work at several tables. A few deal with purchasers of huge quantities of rhubarb, tomatoes, corn, pies, eggs, broccoli and the like. And one table takes care of purchasers of small quantities.

One day several summers ago, a high school girl was making the distinction between types of tables for customers.

“This table is for five items or less,” she called out.

A colleague shuddered. “Five items or fewer,” she corrected. “My mother would kill me if I said, ‘Five items or less.’”

I was thinking about Zinsser Wednesday while shopping for geraniums and pentas at a neighborhood garden shop when I saw a sign that said something like this: “These perennials $3.99 each or $4.49 each for 10 or less.”

In honor of Zinsser and of that girl—and her mother—I took out my pen, scratched our “less,” wrote in “fewer” and resumed my search for pentas.
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach.

Speak Your Mind