August 29th, 2007
Fewer vs. less / attendee instead of attender
by Barbara Wallraff
Dominick DeCecco, of Delmar, N.Y., writes: “The signs for express lines at Wal-Mart and Target state ‘10 items or less,’ while Hannaford uses ‘10 items or fewer.’ I believe Hannaford is correct. Do you agree?”
Dear Dominick: I wish stores would all switch to “No more than 10 items” and we could lay this problem to rest. But in the meantime, yes, indeed, Hannaford is correct. “Fewer” is the opposite of “more” when talking about countable things. So it is obviously the right word for items we’re supposed to actually count before we get in the express line. “Less” is for amounts, or quantities, of something we can’t count. So it’s “fewer words” but “less writing,” “fewer problems” but “less grief.”
Jim Wegryn, of Dimondale, Mich., writes: “I have an old dictionary that has the word ‘attender’ in it — meaning one who attends. All newer dictionaries have ‘attendee’ with this definition. This doesn’t make sense. It’s like changing ‘buyer’ to ‘buyee’ or ‘trainer’ to ‘trainee.’ It should be obvious that an ‘attender’ would be the one attending, while an ‘attendee’ would be the one receiving attention, be that as a patient or as an opera company. How and why did this illogical change occur?”
Dear Jim: Similar objections apply to “absentee,” “escapee” and “returnee,” among other words. A British language authority named Michael Quinion has these figured out. On his Web site World Wide Words (www.wordwidewords.org), he explains that words derived from French reflexive verbs set the pattern. Reflexive verbs have objects that are the same as their subjects. With the verbs in question, though, “the person concerned appears not to be the object of the activity, but the one who initiates it; an ‘absentee’ is someone who absents him- or herself, not someone who is ‘absented’ by another person; a ‘refugee’ is actively seeking refuge, though that situation may have been brought about by others.” And, of course, an “attendee” gets himself or herself to the meeting or opera or whatever.
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