less and fewer

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A recent discussion [names changed to protect the innocent]:

[Facebook status:] Juanita has her exam in less than 8 hours!

The Editorial We: "less than 8 hours" -- fewer

I thought that it was OK to use "less than" when referring to a period of time? I know that "fewer than" is used when referring to multiples of discrete items.

The Editorial We: We've always practiced the rules as, "Use 'fewer' to describe countable things; use 'less' to describe uncountable quantities and degree."

Some styles give leeway to time and money, others don't, and, of course, most folks use less and fewer interchangeably. But we side with those who don't make an exception because both time and money are countable and because we haven't heard a convincing explanation for why we shouldn't.

The standard explanation is that eight hours (taking your example) is not eight separate hours but a single period of time lasting eight hours, and because of that, it's argued that you should use "less." That seems very sketchy to us--you're using "less" because the individual units make up some implied whole, so why make the distinction at all? Ten items or fewer could make up a single purchase, so should you use "less" then as well?
If whoever writes the grammar manuals we're expected to stick to is going to make a distinction between "fewer" and "less" on the basis of countable and not countable, they should be consistent.