More or Less, More or Fewer, Fewer or Less …

The distinction between less and fewer often causes confusion.

The rule that’s most often given in style guides is to use ‘less’ for quantity and ‘fewer’ for number. Easier said than done!

In ‘Troublesome Words’, Bill Bryson gives a different rule, and one that I think is easier to apply: use ‘less’ with singular nouns and ‘fewer’ with plural nouns (so less alcohol, but fewer drinks; less time, fewer appointments).

A neat illustration of the less vs. fewer problem is a current billboard on display in my neighbourhood. It’s an advertisement from NAB, which says:

More satisfied customers (of the major banks). Less irritated ones.

When I read ‘less irritated ones’, I visualise thousands of irritated customers, but customers who are slightly less irritated today than they were yesterday. 
Having ‘less irritated’ customers is a good outcome for NAB, if they have a long history of irritated customers. But it’s probably not the message they’re trying to advertise.
If NAB had used ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’, at least we’d get the idea that NAB has a smaller number of irritated customers than the other banks too. With ‘fewer’ irritated customers, they may even have some customers who are not irritated at all!
The first line of the billboard is also interesting: ‘More satisfied customers (of the major banks)’.

This construction seems awkward. I think it’s trying to say that NAB has more satisfied customers than the other major banks do. But the comparisons need thought. It would make sense to say ‘More satisfied customers (than the other major banks)’; it would also make sense to say ‘The most satisfied customers (of the major banks)’. But putting ‘more’ and ‘of’ together makes for very strange reading.

NAB has an ongoing advertising slogan: ‘More give. Less take.’ That works just fine. But it doesn’t work to blindly apply the ‘more … less’ statement to other concepts.