More about less and fewerOne of the key battles for pedants in their mostly fruitless fight to force English speakers not to speak the English they speak or write the English they write is to restrict the meaning of the word "less".
We all know the rule: you write "fewer" when you mean fewer of a count noun; and "less" when you mean less of a mass (or uncountable) noun.
So we write: "fewer coins" but "less money", "fewer lovers" but "less love".
However, "less" with a count noun is so common that we could almost consider it the preferred usage (and I am one of those people who say it because it's natural for me but write the "correct" version). And it's a time-honoured usage, not an innovation ("fewer" is the innovation).
One argument I've seen for it is that it resolves ambiguity. But does it?
That words can mean different things does not cause ambiguity. Famously, "set" has many meanings (as many as a hundred, even). "I set the table", "I set the exam", "Set it down", "three sets to love" and so on. There is no ambiguity here: just a word with more than one meaning. So there cannot be a problem that "less" means more than one thing. Indeed, it's used to mean "minus" in "three less one is two" and something else in "I couldn't care a less".
Because of the restricted domains for the two words, there can only be ambiguity if there are nouns that are both count and mass nouns. Are there any?
There are a few. As far as I know, they are all names for either animals or the meat from them. (Deer would be an interesting case, because although it is the plural of the noun "deer", it is not actually the name for its meat.) Fish is probably the most commonly used, but elk, bison, cod are further examples (and I think many fish fit here too: do you say "herrings"? "Haddocks"?
So is "I want less fish" or "there are less fish" ambiguous?
Ambiguity can only really be ambiguity if it remains in context. "Chicken" is both the name for the meat of the chicken and for the bird itself, but it is never ambiguous (because as a name for the bird it is a standard count noun in English and cannot appear in the singular without being marked for definiteness: we must always say "a chicken" or "the chicken").
So let's say you're at dinner and ask for "less fish". Do you mean a smaller portion of the meat of the fish or fewer fish? Well, you can only mean fewer fish if you are eating more than one fish, and in any case, you would also mean less of the meat! So even if you were eating a fish like whitebait, for which a serving is several or many fish, "less fish", although strictly ambiguous, would have the same meaning.
I can see some small ambiguity in "less kippers". Just maybe you mean you want one and a half rather than two and are using "kippers" as a quasi mass noun, so that "I am eating kippers" does not necessarily mean you are eating more than one kipper, but that you are eating the meal we call "kippers".
What if you were at the market and asked for "less fish"? Can your meaning ever be unclear? Clearly it could be. You might mean less by weight or fewer in number. But the second will obviously entail the first.
So it seems that we must keep "less" and "fewer" just because of a technical ambiguity at the fish market?