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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.”

That, at any rate, has been the usual rule for a couple of centuries. Why? Because it’s what tends to sound right to educated speakers. As far as I know, there’s no reason beyond that. Signs that say “10 items or less” don’t confuse anyone. It’s true that in rare cases, “less” and “fewer” can convey different meanings — or they could if we were able to trust they were being used precisely. Richard McMahan, of Glenville, N.Y., recently wrote me about one such case: “less pesticide” versus “fewer pesticides.” “Less pesticide” is less of any kind of the stuff; “fewer pesticides” means fewer different kinds of it. But wouldn’t you know — what Richard actually saw was “These foods are grown with less pesticides,” a clumsy mash-up of the two forms.

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.

Thus these words have blurred the old and useful distinction between “-er”s and “-ee”s. Quinion, while lamenting that, sees a brighter side too. He writes: “An argument in favour of such words is that they have the nuance of denoting people for whom the action concerned has been completed: an ‘escapee’ has actually escaped, whereas an ‘escaper’ may merely be escaping.” True enough, we don’t think of someone as an “attendee” at something until the person has walked in the door.

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

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