A few less countable nouns

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.

Year:Genre Concordances – link to search: https://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=63419241
2016:FIC
Bk:Whites:Novel
West Twenties, one step up from a housing project, which meant a few less elevators chronically out of commission
2015:NEWS
Atlanta
But if we all drove just a few less times in the entire year, that is progress in an automobile-dependent metropolis like Atlanta
2014:SPOK
Fox: The Five
They may make a few less dollars, and they should do it.
2011:SPOK
NPR_Science
And it could be that those other services continue on – maybe with a few less people, or maybe some people will cross over.
2010:MAG
GoodHousekeeping
Move family outerwear out and add a few less flimsy hangers inside.
2001:FIC
Analog
And how does one cure a sequence consisting of ” a few less atoms every day’?
2000:MAG
Astronomy
If (Nu) had a few less zeros, only a short-lived miniature universe could exist. No creatures could grow larger
1998:NEWS
Houston
five, over a ten-year period, maybe a few more, maybe a few less, 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.

GloWbE - a few less

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 = a few (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.

References

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

 

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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