Simple rules aim for fewer errors

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It’s time for another installment in the series “I don’t like to pick on mistakes in published writing, but look at this mistake I found in published writing,” in which my disclaimer is starting to ring hollow, but … well … you know.

Here’s a sentence I spotted in the venerable New Yorker magazine: “Gordon, who helped write the Republic of Georgia’s tax law, told me that he could think of no reason that this structure would help a Georgian company lawfully pay fewer taxes.”

Now my incisive commentary: Nope.

“Fewer” is one of those words that, like “whom,” can inspire mistakes by overenthusiastic users. It’s also one of those words that, like “whom,” doesn’t have strict rules. So I’d be overstating my case to call the New Yorker sentence a mistake. But when you’ve made it clear you value conventional wisdom on “less” and “fewer” in the same breath in which you break that rule, you’re making a mistake by your own standards.

Here’s the rule most people go by: “Fewer” is for count nouns, which are things that can be counted individually, while “less” is for mass nouns, which are things seen as quantities. Compare the words “song” and “music.” Songs are individual things. You can have two songs, or three. So “song” is a count noun. You cannot, however, have two or three musics. So that’s a mass noun.

The conventional wisdom on less and fewer, then, says you have fewer songs and less music.

That’s an easy one. But some words, like politics, measles and acoustics, are plural in form even though they’re often meant as singular. Sometimes it sounds more natural to treat them as plural, as in “His politics are alarming,” while other times it’s better to treat them as singular, as in “Politics is a tough profession.” Both of those are right because sometimes the writer is thinking of the word as a sort of bulk item and other times she’s not. Intended meaning goes a long way in these matters.

The word “taxes” is even trickier because when you have a payroll tax and a sales tax and a property tax, the word “taxes” is indeed meant as a plural. In that case, you’re talking about multiple kinds of taxes. But when we talk about paying our taxes, we usually mean a single bulk sum.

The perfect example to prove my point comes out of the same New Yorker article: A book titled “Trump Nation,” the New Yorker reports, “argued that Trump had wildly inflated his fortune, and was actually worth less than a quarter of a billion dollars.”

If the focus were on dollars as individual units, the magazine would have written that net worth as “fewer than a quarter of a billion dollars.” But “less” was the right choice because the dollar figure referred to a lump sum. Plus, if we were just counting dollars, that would mean we couldn’t account for cents. Fewer than eight dollars can be exactly seven dollars or exactly six dollars. But it can’t be seven dollars and 48 cents.

Distances work the same way. Fewer than three miles means two miles, one mile or zero miles. That’s why, most of the time, you want to say that the store is less than three miles away, not fewer.

If you hope your tax bill will go down next year, you’re hoping to pay less taxes. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that you don’t care about the total amount but instead want to avoid certain types of taxes, you may indeed want to pay “fewer taxes.” But I don’t think that’s what the New Yorker writer meant.

– June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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