I said I would get back to this topic with some notes on my sources and here they are. The first comes from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994). I love this book, but unfortunately this is a case where it comes off looking rather judgmental.
We next come to two separate constructions involving coordination, usually with and. The first is characteristic of less educated English, or, as it is delicately put these days, non-mainstream varieties of English. This is the use of the objective case [me] before the verb when the pronoun is coordinated with a noun or another pronoun:
Me and my baby goes back and sleeps the day – Anonymous speaker, quoted in Walt Wolfram, Appalachian Speech, 1976
Quirk [et al. 1985] says that the objective pronoun can even occur in the position next to the verb. Wolfram notes that the objective pronoun does not occur by itself in subject position, only in combination with another noun or pronoun. (p. 778)
It’s unfortunate that MWDEU uses the term “less educated” and then cites a speaker of Appalachian English because this “non-mainstream” usage of the objective pronoun me can be found in the mouths of everyone everywhere. Seriously, just go listen for it and you will find it. But would they call it “less educated” if the source was a politician or professor? MWDEU even makes a note of how the objective case of the first-person singular pronoun seems to be the unmarked case used “everywhere there are no positive reasons for using the nominative” (p. 778). What they should claim is that the nominative (or subjective) case is required only in the subject position directly before the verb in standard English varieties. Another thing is the last sentence of the block quote above. It shows that no one – not even the speakers of “less educated English” – use me alone in the subject position. With the exception of Cookie Monster, of course.
The next source is Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th edition, edited by Jeremy Butterfield. This is a good edition of Fowler’s famous usage guide. Check it:
There are many contexts in spoken or informal written English in which me is the normal form, and to use I would sound inappropriately formal. (a) At the head of clauses introduced by conjoined subjects me is very common in informal conversation, but will be considered non-standard by some and is best avoided in other kinds of speech. It should not be used in writing except to convey the authentic flavor of speech. [Examples given] Of course, in standard or formal speech or writing the structure X and I is used. (p. 509)
Short, sweet, direct and correct. Nice.
Finally, there’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum (2005). This is based off the much larger work, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. If you really want a momentous grammar of English, the CGEL is the book for you. It’s gonna cost you a pretty penny, but it’s so, so good. Anyway, here’s what they say about the topic at hand:
For many speakers the above rules extend to constructions where the pronoun is coordinated, but there are also many who use special rules for coordinative constructions. Note the status markers on the following examples:
 i. a. Kim and I went over there. b. !Kim and me went over there
Construction [ib] is not accepted as Standard English, though it is very common in non-standard speech.” [That’s what the exclamation point before the phrase means.] (p. 107)
Again, short and sweet. The authors don’t dwell on this usage, they simply mark it as non-standard and note that it is very common. That’s all we need. Why can’t advice articles do the same?
There’s an excellent article on the linguistic work of Prof. Julie Washington in the Atlantic. It’s about code-switching and Prof. Washington’s work in figuring out better ways to educate kids who speak African American English (AAE).
Right at the start of the article, there is a profound quote from Washington. She is talking about a 4-year-old speaker of AAE. Washington read a story to the young girl and asked the girl to recite the story, which she did in her native dialect, AAE. Then Washington says:
“She had to listen to a story in a dialect she doesn’t really use herself, understand the meaning, hold the story in her memory, recode it in her own dialect, and then say it all back to me.” The girl’s “translation” of the book might not sound like much, but translating it? “That’s hard,” Washington said, especially for a young child.
I never thought about it like this, but Washington is exactly right. That is hard. Code-switching can be like translating one language to another.
There is an unfortunate paragraph, though, which seems to drag linguists for no good reason:
At the conference in Madison, linguists threw around phrases such as auxiliary alternation and diachronic precursor, speaking an academic code Washington avoids. She mostly kept her distance, skipping talks with boring titles; she lacks a linguist’s tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes, declaring herself more interested in “functional” matters. (“Oh my God,” she remarked after one particularly pedantic lecture.) […]
I’m willing to bet journalists have their own phrases and code that no one understands. So why the shade? Also, everyone skips talks with boring titles. That’s how academic conferences work. Also also, not all linguists have a tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes and that’s ok. What is an obscure grammatical dispute, by the way? Does it involve auxiliary alternation or diachronic precursors? Did you maybe just make it up?
Besides that paragraph, though, the article is gold. Later on after the linguist dissing, the article has two paragraphs that are excellent in explaining the stakes of the situation.
Labov’s recommendation was largely overlooked outside his field. But last June, Washington completed a four-year study of almost 1,000 low-income elementary-school students in a southern city—the most extensive study ever of the dialect’s role in education—which led her to a similar conclusion. Strikingly, she discovered that African American students’ lagging growth in reading was accounted for almost entirely by the low scores of the students who speak the heaviest dialect. And location mattered: The majority of kids in the city she studied, Washington found, use a regional variety of AAE that is especially far from standard English. This suggests to her that children who speak one of the dialect’s “really dense” varieties are having an experience in the classroom not unlike that of, say, native Spanish speakers.
Compounding these challenges is the fact that most AAE speakers have teachers who are hostile to their dialect. In an illuminating investigation published in 1973 (but, according to several linguists I spoke with, still reflective of classroom conditions today), Ann McCormick Piestrup portrayed the AAE speaker’s experience as one of incessant interruption. Black children at the California schools Piestrup studied often answered questions correctly, only to be pounced on for irrelevant differences of pronunciation or grammar. This climate had a drastic effect: As time went on, Piestrup saw students withdraw into “moody silences”; when they did speak, their voices were soft and hesitant. The interrupted students had the lowest reading scores of any children Piestrup observed.
That is what speakers of AAE have been dealing with. It has been hard for linguists to convince schools and parents to adopt the idea of code-switching, especially when it comes to AAE. But this paragraph shows Washington’s great thinking:
A new insight of Washington’s might offer a new path forward, however. In presenting code-switching lessons as a way to ward off catastrophic reading failure, she says, advocates have failed to convey the upsides of speaking African-American English. In a recent paper, Washington points to research showing that fluent speakers of two dialects might benefit from some of the cognitive advantages that accrue to speakers of two languages. She hopes that this line of thinking might at last persuade teachers and parents alike to buy in. “We see value in speaking two languages,” Washington told me. “But we don’t see value in speaking two dialects. Maybe it’s time we did.”
I have seen the positive aspects of AAE spoken of before, such as in McWhorter’s book Talking Back, Talking Black (review coming soon) and on his show on Lexicon Valley, as well as in the work of Walt Wolfram, most recently his film Talking Black in America (see the website here). And we have all seen the articles about how bilinguals are super smart and they live longer and they never get dementia and all the other claims made about what comes from speaking two languages. But I’ve never thought about code-switching as being the same thing as speaking two languages, even though it pretty much is.
Great article. You should read it. You can find it here.
So there’s a news article about language and the journalist interviewed… linguists! Actual, real life linguists! I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Does this mean the field of linguists has finally made it? May Helena Plumb put it perfectly:
Wait, someone had a question about language in society, and they asked a linguist? Huh. Who'da thunk. https://t.co/DboRsjTH65
I’m joking around, but the article, which appears in the Huffington Post, is really good. It’s about the decline of the phrase you’re welcome and the article does a great job in explaining the ins and outs of phatic expressions and the social uses and meanings of the things we say.
But is you’re welcome really on the decline? Are no worries and no problem really on the increase? There weren’t any figures in the article to back this up, so I thought I’d have a look. The first thing to notice is the claim that you’re welcome as a response to thank you is relatively new. Linguists call this form of you’re welcome a minimizer. According to the Huffington Post article, which is citing other sources, the term first appears in writing in 1907 (cited in the OED). Of course, the phrase you’re welcome as in you’re welcome to come over anytime is older than that, but why doesn’t the minimizer you’re welcome (as a response to thank you) date back any further than that? It seems like such a natural part of our language, doesn’t it?
I was able to find two hits in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COHA) that might predate the OED’s 1907 citation. I say might because I’m not a lexicographer, so take these with a grain of salt. We all know what happened last time I tried to predate a dictionary entry. (The citations here don’t predate the OED by much anyway).
The first one is from 1862, in a play called Davy Crockett written by Frank Murdoch (redo my COHA search here). Apparently the play was first shown in 1872. You can see the keyword in context result from COHA by following the link. I was able to find the script in a book called Davy Crockett & Other Plays (ed. by Goldberg and Hefner). That book is from 1940. Here are the lines in question:
This one looks an awful lot like the minimizer you’re welcome. It’s even said in response to thank you very much.
Then there’s this hit for “you are welcome” from 1848 in a book called Anecdotes for Boys by Harvey Newcomb. (Redo the search here) The book is online at the Internet Archive here (just flip to page 98). A screenshot of the page in question is below. This one also looks like the minimizer you’re welcome.
Lynne Murphy, a professor and linguist at the University of Sussex, has a theory that replying to thank you with you’re welcome might come from Irish English. In her post on the topic, she also has this insightful paragraph:
Reading around a bit on the topic now, I’m interested to see that several researchers (all cited in Schneider 2005) have found that English speakers are less likely to give a verbal response to thanks than speakers of other European languages and that British English speakers are the least likely of all to verbally respond to thanks with a ‘minimizer’ like no problem, my pleasure, or you’re welcome. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that in Britain thank you/thanks is often used for purposes other than thanking, or maybe it doesn’t. (It depends on how the research was done–and I don’t have access to all of it at the moment.)
Maybe the minimizer you’re welcome isn’t so natural. Murphy might be on to something with the Irish connection though. After all, the playwright cited above has the Irish-sounding name Murdoch. He was born in Massachusetts, though, and it seems the name Murdoch ultimately comes from Scotland (according to my crack search engine research), but maybe the Murdochs in question picked up the minimizer thank you on their way through Ireland?
Figures of minimizer you’re welcome
Now let’s try to see if minimizer you’re welcome is really on the decline. This one is tricky to research because the form which is used in constructions like you’re welcome to VERB will muddy the results. But let’s see what we can do.
On first glance, you’re welcome doesn’t seem to be declining. Most of the hits for you’re welcome in the 1800s were for the you’re welcome to VERB kind, not the minimizer kind. Of the decades in the latter half of the 20th century, I did a rough check for minimizers and came up with the following stats:
Minimizer thank you / total (%)
Freq. per million words
Remember that these are very rough numbers. I didn’t have time to check all of the expanded displays and I tried to exclude any insincere minimizers of you’re welcome (where it seems like you’re welcome was said sarcastically). But it looks to me like minimizer you’re welcome is not in decline.
The COHA data should be taken with another grain of salt because it’s written English rather than spoken English. Maybe people really are saying you’re welcome less often these days. If we look at the SPOKEN section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), it seems that the phrase is slightly on the decline, but the frequencies for the 2010s are still higher than the early 1990s. A cursory glance at the concordances shows that most of the hits are for the minimizer you’re welcome and not the you’re welcome to VERB. Things were the opposite in the COHA texts. If I ever get the time, I’ll go through the 2,000+ hits. (Redo my search here)
The data in the SPOKEN section of COCA is taken from television news and news opinion shows, so it’s not a perfect representation of spontaneous spoken language. It’s sometimes scripted and most of the time formal. But that second fact is maybe a positive – I would expect to see the (sincere) minimizer you’re welcome show up in more formal registers. For a more accurate look at spoken data, we can head across the Atlantic and check out the British National Corpus (BNC). In the BNC’s SPOKEN section, 21 of the 41 hits are for minimizer you’re welcome. That’s fewer overall hits than I expected, but more hits for minimizer you’re welcome than I expected. Its frequency per million words is 2.1.
The spoken data from the BNC was recorded between 1991 and 1994. For a more modern look at things, we can check out the BNC 2014, which has spoken data recorded between 2012-2016. In the BNC 2014, there are 111 hits for you’re welcome in 85 different texts, of which 57 hits come after the words thank you. I didn’t have time to read through all of the expanded contexts, so I’m not sure of the situations in which these were used. But the results mean that just over half of them look like minimizers. Of the 57 you’re welcome minimizers in the BNC 2014, 15 were recorded in 2012, 9 in 2014, 19 in 2015, and 14 in 2016. The frequency per million words for the hits overall is 4.99. That’s higher than the BNC data from the 1990s.
In comparing the rate of minimizer you’re welcome, it would be good to look at a few of the phrases which the HuffPost article claims are replacing it. The minimizer no problem is tricky to search for because it can also be used in phrases such as “I have no problem with X”. There are 1,788 hits for this phrase in the SPOKEN section of COCA and I just don’t have time to go through them for this blog post. Instead, let’s look at no worries. There are only 59 hits for this phrase in COCA’s SPOKEN section and from my rough review, only four of these are minimizers in response to a thank you – three from 2017 and one from 2014. That’s not a lot. I’d be hesitant to say that this phrase is replacing you’re welcome. But again, COCA doesn’t capture casual and spontaneous speech as well as we would like it to. So these numbers are far from definitive. The other minimizers, such as okay, sure and anytime, would be even harder to search for because of how many other roles and meanings they can have besides being minimizers. And I don’t have the time to go through them for this post.
So where does that leave us? First, I’m not sure we can say that the minimizer you’re welcome is on the decline. But people clearly think it is. They may be right that people are saying minimizer you’re welcome less these days, but I would worry that that’s a case of recency illusion. I’d say it’s possible that the other minimizers (no worries, no problem, etc.) are on the rise and making it seem like minimizer you’re welcome is on the decline. It’s possible that minimizers in general are on the rise. Or, as the HuffPost points out, the minimizer chosen is becoming more dependent on context and situation:
When you’re in a more formal setting, it makes sense to say “you’re welcome” rather than something like “No worries.” In more informal situations, like a text message conversation, the reverse is true. […] So it seems the politeness formula may simply be shifting in many situations, from “thank you” → “you’re welcome” to “thank you” → “no worries”/”no problem”/”sure thing”/etc.
As always, you’re welcome to comment on this post. But please don’t say “thank you”. I can’t take the pressure of choosing which minimizer to respond with.
Just kidding, we all know that English should have only one minimizer: fuhgeddaboudit.
This is an entry in a series of posts I’m calling Word Fails Me, in which I highlight the strange ideas that Microsoft Word has about English grammar. Each post will be a screenshot with little or no comment. The intention of this series is to amuse you and make you wonder where Word is getting its ideas. I’m not trying to be condescending to Word’s grammar checker or the people behind it. Word is a fascinating program and the grammar checker can be a lifesaver, even if it leans prescriptivist sometimes. If I come across interesting research into MS Word’s grammar checker, I’ll share it here. You can find all of the entries under the Word Fails Me tag. Enjoy!
Welcome to Word Fails Me! Let’s start with an example from Microsoft’s own web site about their grammar checker. As you can see, Word thinks the following sentences are A-OK:
The document is sorting that we must review.
The document is smoking that we must review.
To be fair, I think you should definitely review a document if it is smoking.
I know of the phrase This ain’t your [family member]’s X, but I’m not sure where it came from and who the family member should be. Your grandma? Your daddy? Your granddaddy? I decided to do a quick Duck Duck Go search on some of these that sounded natural. Take what you will from the search results.
“this ain’t your daddy’s”
this ain’t your daddy’s big band
this ain’t your daddy’s Eagles
this ain’t your daddy’s !Q
these ain’t your daddy’s “This ain’t your daddy’s” jokes
“this ain’t your mama’s”
this ain’t your mama’s peach pie recipe
this ain’t your mama (church)’s church
this ain’t your mama’s recipe
“this ain’t your grandma’s”
this ain’t your grandma’s artwork
this ain’t your grandma’s ‘dick’
this ain’t your grandma’s teddy bear
this ain’t your grandma’s postum
this ain’t your grandma’s soap anymore – or is it?
this ain’t your grandma’s bingo
this ain’t your grandma’s SETI
“this ain’t your grandpa’s”
this ain’t your grandpa’s AR-15
this ain’t your grandpa’s DHEA
this ain’t your grandpa’s ceramic bong
this ain’t your grandpa’s laptop
this ain’t your grandpa’s AKIDO
this ain’t your grandpa’s sex toy
If anyone knows where this phrase comes from, please leave a comment below. The OED has an example of it from 2000 under the entry for hot-rodding (“This ain’t your granddad’s classic car book.”), but it must be older than that. COHA has hits for “this ain’t your”, but none followed by a word for a family member. Google Ngrams is no help (surprise!). Each of my searches used a parent or grandparent, so I guess the family member referred to has to be one that is necessarily older in order for the phrase to sound natural. But I bet variations could be used depending on what the “thing” is – “This ain’t your kid’s cartoon” could be used for animated shows and movies that are aimed strictly at adults, such as Big Mouth and Sausage Party. But what sounds natural to you?
In their advice article “‘I’ or ‘me’?”, Oxford Dictionaries claims that in coordinated constructions where a pronoun and a proper name form the subject of a sentence, the pronoun used must be the subjective form of the pronoun (also called the nominative form). What this means is that in a sentence like “John and I went to the GWAR concert”, it is incorrect to use me instead of I. Let’s leave aside the fact that everyone everywhere naturally uses me in sentences like this. Let’s instead think about the advice that Oxford Dictionaries is giving. We’ll use the sentence that they use: Clare and I are going for a coffee. According to Oxford, it’s not just the subjective pronoun I that must be used in this sentence, only subjective pronouns must be used when the pronoun helps form the subject of a sentence. But how does this work? See if any of the sentences below sound odd to you.
Clare and I are going for a coffee
Clare and me are going for a coffee
Clare and you are going for a coffee
Clare and you are going for a coffee
Clare and she are going for a coffee OR Clare and he are going for a coffee
Clare and her are going for a coffee OR Clare and him are going for a coffee
Clare and they are going for a coffee
Clare and them are going for a coffee
If you’re like me, the first four sound fine (obviously, there’s no difference between the subjective and objective form of the 2nd person pronoun, they’re both you). The fifth one, however, sounds a bit stuffy compared to the sixth one (stuffy is a totally legit linguistics term). And the seventh is bordering on unacceptable. Does Oxford really think that Clare and they are going for a coffee is correct, while Clare and them are going for a coffee is not? Maybe? They didn’t use that sentence as an example. They focused instead on the 1st person pronoun – where there is more variation.
This topic boils down to a few things. First, English tends to favor me as the default pronoun in all cases except for when the pronoun stands alone as the subject. There is such a strong tendency to use me in all cases that this form is sometimes referred to as the oblique form, meaning that in addition to being the object, it fulfills other roles in sentences. And so English quite naturally uses the me form in coordinated structures, or phrases where there’s a pronoun and something else joined together with the word and:
John and me went to the GWAR concert.
Me and the bouncer got into an arm wrestling match.
Me and this other guy partied with GWAR after the show.
Second, using the subjective pronoun I in coordinated constructions isn’t wrong. English allows for both constructions and the choice of which one to use usually breaks along formality of the occasion – John and I seems more formal, while John and me seems more informal. But there is evidence of both structures throughout history in many different styles of writing. The John and I form is dictated by prescriptivist grammarians (and apparently some dictionaries), while the John and me form is proscribed, despite being used by everyone. In constructions with the first person singular pronoun, you can’t go grammatically wrong choosing I or me. But notice, however, that me is more versatile in where it can be placed:
Clare and me are going for a coffee
Me and Clare are going for a coffee
Clare and I are going for a coffee
*I and Clare are going for a coffee
As we have seen, in constructions with the 3rd person pronouns, things are potentially more cut and dry. With the 3rd person singular, it seems we should use the subjective forms (him, her) for all but the most formal registers. With the 3rd person plural, however, it seems we should always use the objective form them.
Finally, there is a piece of advice out there that I’ve seen in a lot of places. It goes like this:
In coordinated constructions (noun + pronoun), take out the noun and leave the pronoun. This will show you which case you want.
This advice is dumb. Why would I take something out of a sentence to decide how I should say the rest of the sentence after I put that thing back in the sentence?! This makes no sense at all. This advice is only given with coordinated subjects because it makes it seem like the subjective pronoun is always correct. Here’s Oxford using it at the end of their article:
An easy way of making sure you’ve chosen the right pronoun is to see whether the sentence reads properly if you remove the additional pronoun:
✓ I am going for a coffee. ✗ Me am going for a coffee.
In compound structures, where there are two pronouns or a noun and a pronoun, drop the other noun for a moment. Then you can see which case you want.
Not: Bob and me travel a good deal.
(Would you say, “me travel”?)
But what happens when I take the pronoun out of the sentence? I’m left with Bob travel a good deal. 😐
Y U NO give better advice, grammer peeple?
Ok, I’m being awful hard on Oxford Dictionaries. The thing is, their advice column could have been cleared up with a line that explained they were talking about Standard English only. Or that outside of standard written and spoken English, people are more likely to come across the form X and me. The X and me construction is so common in informal written and spoken English that using X and I may be out of place. Non-standard and informal English are the default forms of the language, whether they are written or spoken, so users of English will hear/read these forms most often in day to day circumstances. The split in choosing I or me along formal/informal or standard/non-standard lines isn’t a lot of linguistic knowledge for people to understand. They shouldn’t be forced into thinking there is only One True Way to use pronouns in English.
I might post more on this later and include the advice given by other style guides, grammars and dictionaries. If you want to see some of them backing up my claims right now, check out:
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, page 778
Fowler’s Modern English Usage 4th edition (edited by Butterfield), page 509
A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, page 107
While everyone was worrying about whether less or fewer was correct in 10 items or less, another construction has been flying under the radar: a few less. I haven’t seen any style guides make remarks about this phrase, but it is an interesting one. It’s hard to search for online because there’s an Australian movie called A Few Less Men, which dominates the search results. I was able to find a WordReference forum about a few less, but it’s not much help. So let’s go to some corpora to see how a few less is used.
There are 36 hits for a few less in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which means it’s not very common (for comparison, there are 4,875 hits for a few more). All of the hits for a few less pre-modify countable nouns.
West Twenties, one step up from a housing project, which meant afewless elevators chronically out of commission
But if we all drove just afewless times in the entire year, that is progress in an automobile-dependent metropolis like Atlanta
Fox: The Five
They may make afewless dollars, and they should do it.
And it could be that those other services continue on – maybe with afewless people, or maybe some people will cross over.
Move family outerwear out and add afewless flimsy hangers inside.
And how does one cure a sequence consisting of ” afewless atoms every day’?
If (Nu) had afewless zeros, only a short-lived miniature universe could exist. No creatures could grow larger
five, over a ten-year period, maybe a few more, maybe afewless, I don’t know, several times.
If you redo the search, it looks like there are 40 hits but the following do not fit the construction:
“Some health plans don’t cover Zyban, but a few less than forthcoming smokers have gotten around that by asking doctors to diagnose them with depression”. It’s more a few less-than-forthcoming smokers.
“Only a few less accessible villages have so far been spared of tourists”. This is also a case where less is modifying the following adjective and could be rewritten as a few less-accessible villages.
“there are always a few less visible non-tariff barriers which arise which will need to be smoothed out.” This again is a few less-visible non-tariff barriers.
There is also the concordance “Twenty years since our first date. A few less than that since I helped her pick out her first grown-up road bike”. In this construction, I would say that less is a noun and few is an adjective.
In the corpus of Global Web-based English (GloWbE), the US, UK and Australia seem to use this construction most often, although the frequency per million words (the PER MIL column) is not that different between the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines (see the image below). The concordances also appear to show that a few less is a modifier for a countable noun, although I did not go through all of the 328 hits in GloWbE. You can re-do my search on GloWbE by following this link.
The way I see it, there are two ways to analyze this construction. First, in a few less NOUNs, the words a few make up a non-exact indefinite quantifying determiner and less is an adjective modifying the noun phrase. What you have is this:
A few less NOUNs = afew (indefinite determiner), less (adjective / head of AdjP), NOUNs
Second, I suppose it’s possible to treat few as an adjective too (modifying the adjective less) and leave a to be the single-word determiner. So you would have something like this:
A few less NOUN = a (determiner), few (adjective / modifier), less (adjective / head of AdjP)
But I wouldn’t go for this analysis because the Longman Student Grammar also treats a few as a quantifying determiner which denotes a small amount (p. 75).
The interesting thing about a few less is that it easily – and quite unremarkably – modifies count nouns. People have a problem with ten less items/dollars/miles/people, but no one seems to raise a fuss about a few less items. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using less with countable nouns, especially ones that are units of measurement and money. But I don’t think people have considered that if less really can’t modify count nouns – and that fewer needs to be used with count nouns – then the construction we would forced to use is a few fewer items. And no one wants that.
Longman Student Grammar of Written and Spoken English (2002) by Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad and Geoffrey Leech.
English Grammar: A University Course (2nd edition, 2006) by Angela Downing and Philip Locke. pp. 428, 433, 481, 492