The Compulsive Copyeditor

March 15, 2020

Do You Like to Watch?

Filed under: grammar — amba12 @ 2:26 pm

Wanna see a copy editor at work?

That’s the last thing on your mind, I know. But you need a break from the virus and the primaries. And if you are a word and grammar nut like me, you can’t resist this stuff, any more than Roger Rabbit could resist the siren song of the “Shave and a haircut!” knock pattern, bursting through a wall to deliver “Two biiiiiits!”

So here’s today’s correspondence between me and a science magazine editor I work with.


Hi Annie,

There are two places in the sci-written feature (attached) where we used
“fewer than” a percentage of a discrete thing [“fewer than 1 percent of the injected nanovehicles actually reach the tumor site”; the other was similar, and I hadn’t commented]. We had asked about this in [another] feature, also attached [“fewer than one-third of metastatic melanoma patients treated with dabrafenib alone survive more than three years“], where you said:

I think it’s “less” because “fewer” goes with a number, not a proportion, which has a size.

Are you saying that for percentages, we will always use “less than”? I have always struggled with this one—please help me understand!



The short answer is: authorities back both choices, so go with your gut. (You can stop reading now, or accompany my curiosity to the end of this email.)
Researching this, Chicago Manual was not much help (which is why I went with my gut):

less; fewer. Reserve less for singular mass nouns or amounts {less salt} {less soil} {less water}. Reserve fewer for plural count nouns {fewer calories} {fewer people} {fewer suggestions}.

That leaves out the neither-fish-nor-fowl case of fractions and percentages.
Merriam-Webster Online, (which is basically Web 11 with trimmings), uses “fewer” with percentages. Oddly, they don’t have it with “fewer than,” only with “No fewer than,” and this is one of their examples:

No fewer than 80 percent of registered voters turned out for the primary.

According to this, I am wrong. But according to the site Grammarphobia (the authors of which “have written five books about the English language and have more than half a century of experience as writers and editors”), I am more right than wrong:

Q: I know “fewer” refers to something you can count and “less” to something uncountable. However, what do you say in a sentence like this: “Fewer [or “Less”] than half of the graduates are present today.” In this case, are you talking about the graduates or are you referring to the fraction?

A: Strictly speaking, as you know, “fewer” should refer to plural nouns (“fewer kittens”) and “less” to singular nouns (“less milk”). But a weakness of “fewer” can be seen with percentages and fractions.

Should we say “less than five percent of the people” or “fewer than five percent of the people”? “Less than half of the graduates” or “fewer than half of the graduates”?

The answer isn’t black and white. I think (and Garner’s Modern American Usage agrees) that in these cases “less” is better.

The phrase “half of the graduates” is closer to a collective mass noun than to a collection of individuals counted up. So I’d suggest “less than half of the graduates.”

There are intelligent arguments for “fewer,” but “less” would be my choice, since percentages and fractions suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

So, do as you will!


So, why didn’t it trigger my vigilance in the scientist-written feature (besides the fact that I had bigger fish to fry there)? Maybe because “fewer” is immediately followed by visualizable activity on the part of plural bacteriabots targeting a tumor. Survival of cancer patients is more of a classifying statistic (a chunk of a set) than an action by an agent. So if you don’t feel it’s too inconsistent, they could be different in the two pieces. If you feel it’s too inconsistent, obviously “fewer” is OK in both cases.


Got you.

“less” would also be ok in both cases, right? Or do you think that would read strangely in the sci-written piece?

I’m leaning toward allowing them to be different in the two stories but will put this to the group for a decision.


I guess “less” would also be OK in both places, but I was interested by the fact that “fewer” didn’t get my attention in the sci-written piece. (Maybe it wouldn’t have in the other piece, either, if you hadn’t asked about it there? Not sure!) I tend to be contextual and intuitive, which can make me inconsistent——in the case of the bacteriobots, I was seeing them, little individual specks struggling to reach the tumor, like sperm and an egg.
Whatever the group decides. 

It’s sort of like whether to use a singular or plural verb depending on whether components of a mass noun (“team of researchers,” e.g.) act separately or together, about which Chicago Manual says:

When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of unity or multitude, the verb is singular {the nation is powerful}. When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of plurality, the verb is plural {the faculty were divided in their sentiments}.


Oh, that’s interesting.

You, dear reader, may or may not agree, but at least you’ve had a soothing break from the pandemic and the primary.

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