Patterson's book covers the math--and the math majors (and physicists?!)--considered by many to be responsible for the derivative market and its meltdown, which pretty much upended the financial world in the past couple of years.


As I heard Scott, a well-respected Wall Street Journal reporter, discuss his book, I thought about the intersection of grammar and math. Writing math equations is done in an entirely different symbolic system from writing other sentences. Think about it: < = "less than"; > = "greater than" in math sentences. Would that we could use such symbols in prose!


Pretty easy to decide which symbol to use if you are writing equations. But what about using the words "more than," "less than," "fewer," and "over" when we are writing sentences?


Well, I could say that over 10 people have asked me for a quick way to decide which is grammatically correct when deciding between "fewer" and "less than," but that wouldn't be grammatically correct. More than three people have asked me to cover the issue because they find misuse irksome, especially in student papers; among those are Professor Akim Reinhardt of Towson State University in Maryland. (Professor Reinhardt also knows a few physicists, none of whom had anything to do with derivatives.)


So what can Professor Reinhardt tell his students? When using specific numbers in a sentence, such as "one," "10," or "five hundred," it is correct to use "fewer than" and "more than." These words are also used with so-called count nouns, or nouns that refer to groups of countable individual units: books, jam jars, students.


"Less" is properly used with mass nouns, or nouns that refer to larger or smaller masses of indivisible material, such as jam, money, or Silly Putty.


That's pretty clear. The difference between "over" and "more than" is a little murkier. Many editors and grammar style mavens claim that "over" is properly used only or primarily as a preposition to indicate position: "The copy chief held his grammar knowledge over her head like a sword"; "The stock market went over the top yesterday." They reserve "more than" for numbers and quantifying comparisons: "She had more than five years of experience"; "That cat likes watching the laptop screen more than he likes tuna!"


Many linguists consider the "more than" vs. "over" distinction fussy and ungrounded because, in popular speech, lots of people use "over" in such sentences as "Over five million people choose Jif." But copy editors may choose differently. I'm eager to read The Quants, not only for its content, but also to check how the Crown copy editors dealt with this issue. (Yes, that's geeky.)

What about you? Do you observe the distinction between "more than," "over," "fewer," and "less"? And do you wonder which publishing executive once said, "Less books, fewer money?" Write in and I'll tell you!


Ellen Scordato has spent more than 25 years in book publishing as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She currently is a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer. Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English at Cabrini Immigrant Services in addition to running the production side of The Stonesong Press.

0 Kudos
by RTA on ‎03-11-2010 04:27 PM

Ellen, I never knew the distinction between less than and fewer than.  I was just doing a final edit on a piece this afternoon and found an improper "less than."  I wouldn't even have known it was wrong if I hadn't read your blog this morning. 


Also, despite not noticing the distinction between less than and fewer, I would never substitute over for more than.  Weird, huh?


Anyway, thanks for the assist. 


(BTW, I must say, somewhat nervewracking posting to this blog.  I'm sure there's some grammar error I'm missing.  Oh well.)

by RTA on ‎03-11-2010 04:34 PM

Er, sorry for the double comment (why can't we edit blog posts). 


I shouldn't have said "I would never substitute over for more than."  It's probably more accurate to say I don't normally.  I'm sure, however, I've messed even that up from time to time.

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎03-16-2010 11:37 AM

Oh my goodness! Never worry bout errors in grammar in comments! I am not that sort of red-pencil grammarian, waiting w/bated breath to swat down those who swerve from Strunk & White.


I'm happy to be of service reducing fear of grammar and providing the tools so many of us missed in, um, grammar school.

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