March 24, 2010

Language tips: Greater or more, less or fewer, count nouns and mass nouns & quotes within quotes

Posted in count nouns/mass nouns, fewer/less, greater than/more than, quotes within quotes at 8:28 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Greater or more, less or fewer, count nouns and mass nouns

A reader writes:

I have been working with a junior faculty member and we have different views on when one uses greater than versus more than.

For instance:  He wrote,  “some folks work with GREATER than 50 different agencies” and I changed that to “some folks work with MORE than 50 different agencies.”  We have the same type of issues with respect to: fewer than and less than.  Advice? Any comment – oh word Guru.

The reader is correct. The changed version, “some folks work with more than 50 agencies” is the right one.  ‘Greater’ should not be used interchangeably with ‘more.’

I thought I would discuss the troublesome words noted in the title of tip 1 together because similar issues apply to all. The choice of word depends on whether what follows is a count noun or a mass noun. I can hear the groans already, but this is really very simple.

Count nouns refer to things that can be counted, and they can be either singular or plural.

I have a plate of 15 cookies. I ate one cookie.

‘Cookie’ is a count noun. Or to use the research vernacular:

To test my hypothesis, I am going to examine 20 discrete variables. My examination of the first variable did not reveal very much.

‘Variable’ is a count noun. Whether ‘cookies’ or ‘variables,’ the same rules apply.

Mass nouns or non-count nouns refer to things that cannot be counted. They can’t be subdivided and are viewed as a whole. They sometimes refer to abstractions. Mass nouns usually (there are some exceptions) are singular and can’t be made plural.

I have so much information to organize, I don’t know where to start.

‘Information’ is a mass noun since it can’t be broken into smaller components, and we would never refer to ‘informations’ in the plural. If we had said:

I have so many pieces of information, I don’t know where to start,  then, ‘pieces’ is the count noun.

Another example,

The investigator was filled with excitement when she realized that her experiment was working.

Here, ‘excitement’ is a mass noun.

The weather is very changeable: the sun is shining one moment, and we’re in a hailstorm the next.

In this example, ‘weather’ is a mass noun: even though it is changing, it still can’t be divided.

Neither of these nouns can be made plural. But what are the exceptions I mentioned earlier? There are many; here’s an example:

Wine has many heart healthy qualities.

Here, wine is a mass noun and can’t be made plural; however, what if I said something like this.

The wines of Chile are very good, and they are a good value, too.

Now, the word ‘wines’ is a count noun. It’s worth noting that many nouns fall into this category.

Okay, back to the original issue. We have ‘greater’ and ‘more’ and ‘fewer’ and ‘less.’

With mass nouns, we generally use ‘greater’ or ‘less.’ With count nouns, we use ‘more’ and ‘fewer. ’ There are exceptions, of course.

This happiness (mass noun) is greater than I ever imagined.

I have less time (mass noun) than I would like to attend to this assignment.

I wish I had more copies (count noun) of that book.

Unfortunately, we have fewer opportunities (count noun) now to revise and resubmit our grant proposals.

So in the original example, ‘agencies’ is a count noun, so the correct way of stating the sentence would be:

Some folks work with more than 50 different agencies.

Now, in the interest of honesty, I must admit that for some, the distinctions between ‘greater’ and ‘more’ and ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ have been eroding, and some don’t make the distinction at all. Since I was taught to follow this rule as a child, neglecting it leaves what  sounds to me like awkward constructs. I think that losing these subtleties or nuances in language would be a shame, and I think this is one of those usage rules that is worth  maintaining.

But I believe that I mentioned some exceptions. There are always exceptions, and these exceptions relate to ‘fewer’ and ‘less.’ While normally, we use ‘fewer’ with count nouns and ‘less’ with mass nouns, when it comes to referring to time, distance, and money, ‘less’ is the preferred form.

I have less than twenty minutes left on my parking meter.

I have less than five miles to go.

The cost of the dinner was less than $50 per person.

And that about covers ‘greater’ and ‘more’ and ‘fewer’ and ‘less.’

Tip 2: Quotes within quotes

A reader writes:

What is the right way to show a quotation within a quotation? It looks strange to have a bunch of quotation marks next to each other. Is there a better way to do this?

Well, we can’t avoid multiple quotation marks when we are quoting someone’s exact words and that person quotes someone or something else. But the good news is that it’s not as bad as “”. The reason is that while the first quotation is indicated by the regular double quotation marks, the internal quotation is indicated by single quotation marks. So at worst, you are looking at ‘”. A little much, perhaps, but not intolerable.

The visiting professor announced, “I am happy to be here talking with you, today. Dale Carnegie once said, ‘There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.’”

One thing to keep in mind is that it’s not difficult to avoid the multiple quotation marks by slightly rewriting your sentence.

The visiting professor announced, “I am happy to be here talking with you, today. Dale Carnegie once said, ‘There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.’ I think about those words every time I am about to give a talk.”

Piece of cake.



  1. Andrew Thayer said,

    You’re seriously suggesting it’s incorrect to ask for “more sugar” rather than “greater sugar”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      No, I am not saying that.

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