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January 5th, 2005

Less vs. fewer / feel bad or feel badly?

by Barbara Wallraff

Susan Marks, of Iowa City, Iowa, writes: “‘Less calories.’ ‘Express lane for less than 12 items.’ These are wrong, right? Why? Does it have to do with making something plural, as in ‘less salt’ but ‘fewer grains of salt’?”

Dear Susan: Yes, that’s right. Grammarians use the terms “count nouns” and “mass nouns” to describe the difference. Consider “one grain of salt, two grains of salt ...” We can count grains of salt, and we think of the grains as separate things, so “grain,” in this sense of the word, is a count noun. But we wouldn’t ordinarily count with the word “salt” itself (“one salt, two salts” — huh?). Nor would we with “grain” in the sense of “amber waves of grain.” “Salt” in its usual sense and “grain” in this latter sense are mass nouns.

Occasionally the distinction between the two gets tricky. Some things look like count nouns, numbers and all, but are usually thought of as mass nouns. “Dollars” is a good example. It’s correct to say “I have less than $10,” because the idea isn’t individual dollars; we mean “I have less money than that.” A person who says “I have fewer than $10” seems to be talking about a number of dollar bills. Another example is units of time, such as minutes and hours. “I got through the express lane in less than five minutes (not ‘fewer than five minutes’)” is correct, because the idea is a length of time, not a number of minutes.

Sharon Rife, of Simi Valley, Calif., writes: “Which is correct: ‘I feel bad about your father’s illness’ or ‘I feel badly about your father’s illness’? I’ve always said ‘bad,’ but have been corrected.”

Dear Sharon: From now on, feel free (not “freely”!) to correct those other people — and don’t feel bad about it. Your version is the one that language purists prefer. Everyone would say “I feel worried,” not “I feel worriedly,” or “I feel regretful,” not “I feel regretfully.” “I feel bad” follows the same pattern.

Why? In sentences like these, “feel” is a linking verb, connecting the subject, “I,” to an adjective. That is, “feel” works the same way here that forms of the verb “to be” always do: For instance, “I am sad,” not “I am sadly.” People often have trouble with this because most verbs are not linking verbs and follow a different pattern. These other verbs may be followed by adverbs, which modify them: “I tired rapidly of obsessing about illness.” “Once I stopped, I cheered up immediately.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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