Friday, September 24, 2010

Less vs. Fewer: Less Plaque, Fewer Germs



I was delighted to get an e-mail from Mariah, an 8th grader from Connecticut, who writes:
Hi Snarky,
I think I just spotted a grammar mistake in this ad for Colgate Total toothpaste. The girl says,
"You want to see a Colgate Total mouth? See? A lot less germs, and I brushed at 7 am." She should have said 'fewer germs.'

Excellent work, Mariah! Now go ask your ELA teacher to give you some extra credit. You deserve it! 

Where does Colgate go wrong? The copywriter should have used fewer with a countable noun.

Quick rules:
  • Use fewer for countable nouns. Thanks to fluoridated water, kids get fewer cavities these days. We can count cavities.
  • Use less for uncountable nouns. There is less plaque on your teeth after you brush. Plaque can be measured, but not counted.

Correction:
  •  "You want to see a Colgate Total mouth? See? A lot fewer germs, and I brushed at 7am."
  •  "You want to see a Colgate Total mouth? See? A lot less plaque, and I brushed at 7am."

17 comments:

  1. Mariah, you are impressive.

    I'm glad that I'm not the only one who is bothered by this commercial--but I am not an 8th grader!

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  2. That one drives me nuts!!!! It's an Ad Agency, for crying out loud. One might assume the copywriters have degrees that required classes in English.

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  3. Exactly, Jeff. It kills me to know that an ad agency pays people to write copy and those high-paid college grads don't know the difference between "less germs" and "fewer germs" while an eighth grader DOES. Perhaps you and I could get paid to proof their ad copy! :)

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  4. Act Total Care Sponge Bob Mouthwash has an ad on tv now talking about 40% LESS calories.

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  5. While I'm not so much concerned by the bad grammar, there is something else in this commercial that really irks me. The images of the mouths are images of exactly the same mouth.. ridiculous.

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    Replies
    1. Just realized the same thing! Isn't that a type of false advertising?

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    2. It specifically says that it is a creative representation. The illustrations are meaningless.

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  6. If this is a mistake it's mistake of semantics not grammar. But expressions like "a lot less germs", or "ten items or less", are fine idiomatic English. There is no ambiguity, no chance of the reader being mislead and often the "less" construction sounds less clumsy and more natural than the "fewer".

    You are talking pedantic nonsense an sensible people are going to ignore you.

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    Replies
    1. give the 8th grader some credit! She did awesome!

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    2. Why, yes, Anonymous #2, she did! Bravo! While I agree that a lot of grammatical correction can sound pedantic, I don't think it's the case with fewer vs. less. This is a pretty basic principle.

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  7. I'm pretty sure there's a grammar mistake on the boxes of Colgate Optic White toothpaste. It reads: "With regular use, it removes stains ordinary toothpaste don't." Shouldn't it be 'doesn't' instead of 'don't'?

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    Replies
    1. Either that or change it to "toothpastes".

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    2. Nice catch, Anonymous! Indeed, it should read: "...it removes stains ordinary toothpaste doesn't," or, as KiwiKate suggests, "it removes stains ordinary toothpastes don't."

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  8. I just noticed that same thing on the box. I think it might be an error too.

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  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  10. that commercial drives me nutz. White woman's teeth are identical to the black man's teeth - Really - for pete's sake couldn't they afford to take a picture of their real teeth. Doesn't lend much credibility to their commercial.

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  11. I reviewed an author's previous book and published my review on my blog. The personal statement editor will help you in writing.

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