[Economist] "Less" 与 " Fewer" 之间的区别

The difference between "less" and "fewer"

"Less" 与 " Fewer" 之间的区别


MANY people insist on a bright-line distinction between “fewer” and “less”, and get quite agitated by the subject. David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest” featured the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts, who boycott stores with signs reading “12 items or less”. A few vigilantes have defaced such signs in real life. What is the distinction, and why does it matter?

许多人坚持认为 “fewer” 和 “less” 之间泾渭分明,并在这个问题上显得相当敏感。David Foster Wallace 的小说 “Infinite Jest” 描述了在马萨诸塞州生活着一些好斗的语法学家,他们抵制挂有 “12 items or less” 标示的商店。在现实生活中,也有一些治安会会员涂改了类似的标示。

Nouns can be “count nouns” and “mass nouns”. Count nouns are usually distinct things that can be counted, and take a plural: think “houses” or “shirts”. Mass nouns can’t usually be counted or made plural: think “water” or “oatmeal”. (They can sometimes be counted, as in a fancy restaurant offering several different waters, but “water” in ordinary use is otherwise a mass noun). In the traditional rule, “fewer” goes with count nouns and “less” with mass nouns. So it is “My sister has fewer shirts than I do”, but “My brother has less oatmeal than I do”. The rule was first proposed in this form in 1770 by Robert Baker in “Reflections on the English Language”.

名词可分为可数名词(count nouns)与不可数名词(mass nouns). 可数名词通常用于确切的可数的事物,并有复数(plural):比如 “houses” 和 “shirts”。不可数名词通常为不可数的并且没有复数,比如 “water” 和 “oatmeal”(有时这些也是可数的,某些高档餐厅会提供几种不同的水"waters",但在通常的使用中一般都为不可数)。一般而言,"fewer" 对应可数名词,而 "less" 对应不可数名词。 所以我们一般说 “My sister has fewer shirts than I do”, 以及 “My brother has less oatmeal than I do”. 这个规则最早由 Robert Baker 于1770年在 “Reflections on the English Language” 中提出。

But Baker expressed this as a preference, not a rule, perhaps because there are many shadings on it. The mass-count distinction does not always line up with the real-life properties of things: “clothing” is a mass noun (so it’s “less clothing”) but “clothes” is a count noun (so “fewer clothes”). Clothes are discrete items—like a typical count noun. And yet you can’t count them: “he is wearing four clothes” makes no sense. Meanwhile, some count nouns don’t represent discrete things at all. Take time and distance: years and miles are count nouns, but they represent arbitrary sections on a continuum. This probably is why many people find “I’ve lived here less than three years” more natural than “I’ve lived here fewer than three years”. And “less” is almost always more natural than “fewer” after one, in sentences like “that’s one less thing to deal with”.

但 Baker 将这个解释为偏向而不是规则问题,或许是因为这其中还存在着许多细微的差别。可数-不可数的区别并不能与现实生活中的物品一一对应: “clothing” 是不可数名词 ( “less clothing”) ,而 “clothes” 是可数名词 (“fewer clothes”). "clothes" 是一些分开的衣物,就像典型的可数名词。 然而你却不能“数”它们:“he is wearing four clothes” 就是错误的表达。同时,一些可数名词也并不指代那些分开的物品。比如时间(time)和距离(distance):年(years)和公里(miles)属于可数名词,但它们所代表的是一个连续不断的事物当中的任意一部分。这大概也解释了为什么许多人觉得 “I’ve lived here less than three years” 比 “I’ve lived here fewer than three years”.更加自然。同时,把"less" 放在 "one" 之后显得比 "fewer" 更加自然,比如 “that’s one less thing to deal with”。

Finally, there is register or style. “Fewer” is never used with mass nouns, but in casual speech, “less” is often used with count nouns. “She won’t go out with anyone with less than three cars” is fine for the barstool, but using this phrasing in print is likely to attract an editorial correction. The so-called rule has never reflected reality: as far back as the 9th century we find Alfred the Great writing swa mid laes worda, swa mid ma (“be it with less words or with more”). But it is a good guideline for formal writing—and good for keeping the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts out of your supermarket.

最后,这还和语言风格有关。 不可数名词从不搭配 "Fewer" 使用,但是在口语中,"less" 通常会和可数名词一起出现。在酒吧中使用 “She won’t go out with anyone with less than three cars” 就不错,但如果在出版物中这么做就会给让你的编辑给你提出修改意见。所谓的规则从不反应现实:正如 9 世纪的艾尔弗雷德大帝所写 swa mid laes worda, swa mid ma (“be it with less words or with more”这句不翻了,注意艾尔弗雷德大帝使用了 less )。但这对于书面用语是一个不错的指导原则,以及这能让那些好斗的马萨诸塞州语法学家远离你的商店。