Less emissions. More driving pleasure.

Chris Frumplington emailed the blog to draw our attention to BMW's new slogan, "Less emissions. More driving pleasure."



This particular use of 'less' with a countable noun doesn't offend me personally, but I'm surprised that such a large corporation as BMW isn't more conservative in its language use. (My, ahem, Reader's Digest Oxford Complete Wordfinder describes 'less + countable noun' as "disputed".)

Google gives 64,000 hits for "less emissions" and 93,000 for "fewer emissions" - far closer than I would have expected. I suppose it might be because, although 'emission' is a countable noun, we rarely talk about 'one emission' or indeed any specific number of emissions.


AskOxford on less vs fewer

37 comments:

Apus said...

As JD will recall, writers' sloppy use of fewer/less always irritated me, if only because this is such a simple rule to follow. But in this case the techies at BMW have clearly been outgunned by the marketing copywriters. Why? Because the latest engine's emissions might be less toxic but the amount of exhaust gas produced has no thing to do with the constituents of that gas. It's all to do with swept volume and rpm.

THE GRAMMARPHILE said...

Haha, as soon as I saw this post, I started to cringe...and my inner Grammar Bitch screeched "Not *less*--it's FEWER!" really loudly in my head. I've actually been really sensitive to the less/fewer thing lately--for some reason, people at work have screwed this one up a LOT lately, and it's making my head hurt. I, too, am surprised that such a large company made this sort of error.

The Ridger, FCD said...

But it's such a silly and pointless distinction most of the time.

Ellen K. said...

My thinking is "fewer" doesn't make sense because "emmissions" isn't really a count noun there. I understand it as talking about the amount of emmisions, not the number of emmissions. Thus "less".

Similarly, I might say "less cookies", but I wouldn't say "less steaks" becaues, if I am looking at the steak(s) as an aggregate, it's "less steak". But some nouns seem to me to use the plural rather than the singular for the aggrecate (cookies, emmissions), and "less" works fine there for me.

rpmason said...

ellen k. 'Emissions' is the measurement of the yuckus* being spewed, not the total volume being emitted. Fewer parts per billion = fewer emissions. *not a technical term.

Gareth said...

There's a very similar error on Starbucks napkins at the moment. I can't remember the exact wording but it's something like "Less napkins. More care for the environment". It infuriates me beyond reason.

goofy said...

Some usage books advise that "less" with count nouns is grammatical English. After all, it has been used this way in good writing for 1000 years, starting with:

c888 K. ÆLFRED Boeth. xxxv. §5 [6] Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit ȝereccan maȝon. ("whether we may prove it with less words or with more")

Ellen K. said...

rpmason, you are missing the point. I'm not arguing about what the term "emissions" means. I'm making a comment about how the word is preceived. If one is looking at the total amount of emmisions, not the number of emmitted particles, then "less" works. "Less napkins" works too.

Ellen K. said...

P.S. Looking at the example Goofy quoted...

If one is counting the number of words... 346 versus 351 then "fewer" is better. But if one is looking at a half page versus a whole page, "less words" fits. Because you aren't looking at the number of words, but the amount of words.

Editrix said...

Hmmm . . . On one hand, I see the wisdom behind the aggregate argument. After all, people don't count units of emissions on their fingers the way they count cups of flour when making a cake. On the other hand, I'd still go with "fewer." Mostly, it's an emotional reaction ("Less emissions! Ick!"). But, beyond that, I think "less emissions" is more ambiguous than either "less emission" (a smaller amount of emission being generated) or "fewer emissions" (a smaller range of various emissions) would be.

mighty red pen said...

Gareth, you're right, Starbucks has napkins that say "less napkins, more plants." I blogged about this on MRP a while back, but people were equally divided on the less vs. fewer issue.

rpmason said...

ellen k. Then it's a matter of perception. If you view emissions as a mass noun, you are using less correctly. If I view emissions as a count noun, I am using fewer correctly. That said, 'fewer emissions' will cause fewer raised eyebrows from your educated readers - ala JD's posting. In a 2-second non-grammatical unscientific survey, Google returns 95,000 hits for 'fewer emissions' and 67,000 for 'less emissions'.

rpmason said...

MRP, I looked at the comments for your post. Was there a survey? I saw two responses preferring fewer and one for less. I suspect that Starbucks' marketing writers purposefully broke the rule so that people would notice.

rpmason said...

While 'emissions' might be on the cusp of count vs. mass nouns, I don't see 'words' being on that cusp. If I were to describe how full a page was, I'd use either 'fewer words' or 'less text'.

goofy said...

Some more information, including data!
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003775.html

mighty red pen said...

@rp: oops, my memory was a little off. I remember that I felt strongly that "less" was wrong in this instance and one of my commenters felt strongly that I was being overly prescriptivist! Not sure if Starbucks is capable of being so grammatically nefarious, though ...

Editrix said...

@goofy: A-ha! I knew Language Log must have dealt with this at some point, but I couldn't find the post. Thanks for the link.

rpmason said...

Goofy, I wasn't going to respond today since I overdid it yesterday. Interesting discussion. Are you advocating that it should never have been a rule--that it's really a myth like the split-infinitive myth? As my professional writing must err on the prescriptivist side, I must defend my perceived-as-descriptivist choices.

goofy said...

rpmason: As I see it, the rule ("don't use less with count nouns") is a myth. It originated with Baker 1770, as his personal preference. Of course the rule exists, I can find it in many usage books, but there is no justification for it.

We use "less" especially (but not just) with count nouns of time, money and distance, and in the constructions "or less", "less than", and and "one less".

legbamel said...

You don't speak for everyone, though. If I work fewer hours, I make fewer pennies. Now, I may spend less time to make less money, but those aren't count nouns. I do agree, however, that "no less than" has pushed "no fewer than" almost completely under the radar.

goofy said...

@legbamel: Certainly lots of writers do not use "less" with count nouns. But my point is that the rule saying we must never use "less" with count nouns is a myth imo.

JD said...

I should go away on holiday more often (don't say anything, Neil!) - couldn't believe it when I came back to find such a long and interesting discussion on this post.

What interested me most was the talk of 'language myths' and 'language rules' - what's the difference? I mean, if enough people believe a language should be so, doesn't that make it so (at least among those people)? From that perspective, it shouldn't matter when a rule originated or whether its origins can be traced back to one person's preferences.

I'm also not sure about needing justification for any particular language rule. But if reason is needed for the fewer/less rule (apart from its widespread acceptance), couldn't it simply be that using 'fewer' for countable nouns and 'less' for uncountable nouns indicates whether the noun in question is countable or uncountable?

OK, normally you can tell that from context anyway but I'm sure someone out there can think of an example in which you can't.

By the way: I think actually the OED suggests that 'less' is used with countable nouns when a number is specified - for example 'fewer items' but '10 items or less'. I might be making this up but I can check tomorrow.

PS: If a countable noun (as I learnt to call them) is a 'count noun', what is an uncountable noun?

goofy said...

JD: "I mean, if enough people believe a language should be so, doesn't that make it so (at least among those people)?"

What people believe doesn't necessarily reflect what is. I'd say if enough people *use* a language a certain way, not just believe, that makes the language so. If enough English writers and speakers used "less" with and only with noncount nouns, then the rule would be justified. But they don't.

JD said...

OK, you got me: believe... and as a result of that belief, use!

"If enough English writers and speakers used "less" with and only with noncount nouns, then the rule would be justified."

I agree.

"But they don't."

I disagree. I'm confident that they do - or at least certain groups do, in certain registers or contexts. Pick up a broadsheet newspaper (at least in the UK) and you should see that that is the case.

Ellen K. said...

Doesn't it make more sense to just show that some poeple DO use "less" with count nouns. And seems to me we've already established that as the case. No amount of showing people who don't use "less" with count nouns negates those examples.

rpmason said...

ellen k. said, "Doesn't it make more sense to just show that some poeple DO use "less" with count nouns." Um, Usage Notes? I'm sure the AHD, the OED, and M-W have usage notes about less/fewer.

rpmason said...

Re: myth or rule. Descriptivists are supposed to describe how language is currently being used. So, it was a myth and evolved into a rule. I have a problem with their argument that since it was fine in the year 888 (as translated), it should be revert to 'any way you please' again. I contend that in this case the descriptivists are prescribing usage, not describing it.

goofy said...

I'm certainly not prescribing anything, nor am I saying it should be 'any way you please'. I mentioned the King Alfred example to show how long the usage has been part of English. There are many modern examples too, given in the Language Log entry and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage pp. 465-467.

My point is that a rule that says "less" cannot be used with count nouns is unjustified, because it does not describe current usage, much less the usage of any period of English. "Less" with count nouns is and has always been part of English. It is not used with all count nouns, but it is used with many count nouns, especially but not only with nouns of time, money and distance, and in the constructions "less than," "or less," and "one less."

Some writers don't use "less" with count nouns, and that's fine. I'm not telling anyone how to use their language. But there's clearly nothing ungrammatical with "less" with many kinds of count nouns.

Ellen K. said...

@rpmason. I was replying to the post just above mine. I don't think JD was referring to looking for usage notes in those broadsheet newspapers.

rpmason said...

ellen k., I see now. If 'some people' use a certain construction, the usage rule against that construction is thereby invalidated. Whew, I don't need to proofread anymore or even have my work edited. I can leave the appostrophe's in my plural noun's. I can use 'thru' in my published writing. I can stop worrying about good design and organization, too, 'cause 'some people' have published poorly designed and organized dreck. I can take the rest of the week off, since my document is as good as 'some people's'.

Ellen K. said...

Twisting what I said because you don't agree with it = not cool.

rpmason said...

Goofy said, "But there's clearly nothing ungrammatical with 'less' with many kinds of count nouns." You're absolutely correct. Please check any usage book; even the most adamant prescriptivists agree with you on that point.

rpmason said...

Ellen K. Please don't be offended when people push back. Please re-read your comment. Let me paraphrase it as I inferred your meaning. Some people use 'less' with a count noun and that's fine; some people don't but that's immaterial. Maybe you didn't mean to imply that.

TootsNYC said...

": believe... and as a result of that belief, use!"


My pastor would say, You can tell what people believe by what they DO.

And what they SAY they believe may not, in fact, BE what they believe.

You can *say* you believe that wearing your seat belt is a good idea. But if you never buckle up, then you don't really believe it.

Ellen K. said...

@rpmason. Funny, I don't recall saying I was offended. And, frankly, yes, the fact that some people don't use a certain usage does not make that usage they don't use wrong.

To readers in general: I'm thinking, this isn't a descriptive linguist blog, this is a subeditor (or whatever they are called here in America :)) blog. I think if less really truly couldn't at all be used with count nouns, we'd all happily agree and they're be no discussion. But in writing for publication, one might avoid certain usages that are fine (in one's own dialect) in speech. I get the sense that if either seem okay, it's best to use fewer. (That for us native speakers and other fluent speakers. English learners might be a different matter.)

andybee said...

ASDA have a campaign proclaiming 'Less Carrier Bags' - does that jar or what?
Now Volvo are at it with 'Less Emissions, not Less Style'

If enough advertising companies use it and we all begin to use it, does that make it right?

Andy Bee

MikeyC said...

More here: http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/10-items-or-less-is-just-fine/