We’ve been seeing a lot of this:
Spotted at Costco and on the StriVectin website
From the Economist’s Johnson blog, Jan. 12, 2012
And let’s not forget the Mercedes “less doors” ad, which I wrote about in November.
So it was mildly amazing (as presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is fond of saying) to see this ad in the New York Times today:
Not less calories: fewer. Courageous trend-bucking and traditional-rules-of-grammar-obeying, American Beverage Association!
Of course, as count nouns go—nouns that can be modified by a numeral and which occur in both singular and plural form, and which therefore “require” fewer—you can hardly get more countable than “calories.” But there’s another consideration: When you’re peddling expensive sugar water, you want to project a virtuous image. The beverage folks could have gone with “less”—as Stan Carey points out in his language blog, there’s plenty of historical precedent for that choice—but then they would have risked the wrath of traditionalists.* No one will write angry letters over the choice of “fewer” here. Sugary sodas: the wholesome, grammatical choice!
* In the body copy of the ad (too small for legibility here), there’s another “fewer” that strikes my ear as hypercorrect: “While New York City had its own school program, our industry’s efforts in New York State and across the country have led to 88% fewer beverage calories in schools overall.” (Emphasis added.) Percentages are generally included among the exceptions to the less/fewer “rule” (more like a guideline); since the reference here is to a decrease in aggregate calories, I’d have gone with “less.”