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English Plus+ News, July 2001

Questions You Asked

How Are Less and Lesser Used?

This month we take up a topic from Grammar Slammer which people have written us about (or is it "about which people have written us"?). Read more about the question of less and lesser.

Our customers have helped us in many ways. Sometimes they have made suggestions. Sometimes they have noticed errors. Sometimes they are simply asking questions that they want answered. This month we have a series of questions which really get to the heart of the question concerning less and lesser. One writer asked us the following question:

The page on Irregular Comparisons in Grammar Slammer (also on our web site) listed the word Less as a positive adjective, with Less and least being its comparative and superlative forms. I cannot think of an example in which Less is used in a non-comparative, that is positive, sense. Can you give me an example?
Less and lesser are often synonymous. However, less in the non-comparative sense (that is, the positive degree) is often used as a noun, so "Not that I loved Caesar the less." This contrasts with the common expression "the lesser of two evils." Less also can be used in the sense of "minus" as "a year less a month."

At English Plus+, we thought that was a direct answer to a simple question, but we found that that question was just the tip of the iceberg. Apparently a discussion in our correspondent's office had triggered something much more.

(We have been debating whether the word Less can be used as an adjective in the positive form in the office. But you still have not given me an example in which the word Less:
1) is used as an adjective;
2) is used as an adjective in the original / positive form (not comparative or superlative).
We answered that in "Not that I loved Caesar the less." the word less is derived from the comparative, but it is not used comparatively in this sentence. In "the lesser of the two evils, " less could work, but lesser is more common in this sense. Less by itself can mean "not as much," "not so much," or "inferior." Granted, in Latin inferior was comparative, but it is not in English. When Shakespeare has Brutus say in "Not that I loved Caesar the less," he is saying, "Not that I didn't love Caesar as much."
We were also asked, in "a year less a month," isn't less a verb?
Our answer was simple. Less is an adjective. It modifies year. Our Funk and Wagnall's dictionary gives that example as an adjective. There are many good dictionaries, but for discussion like these we often use the Funk and Wagnall's because it is recognized on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. All of these examples are not comparative.

Then we got a reply which went into a little more detail about a specific case that may have started the whole thing.

The fight in the office is about the following sentence: "You eat too less."

I believe that too less here is not grammatical. I think that too cannot go with comparatives but it can with positives. I believe it is not grammatical because less cannot be positive, it must be comparative. Still, Grammar Slammer lists less as a positive degree adjective.

In this case you are correct, but not for the reason that you give. In this sentence less is comparative. The positive form is not less but little. The sentence should read, "You eat too little."

Our intrepid writer then wanted a little clarification on something else related to our discussion.

I understand that there is the structure the + an adjective in the positive form in modern English. Some examples are groups like the rich, the poor, and the young. These structures could behave like nouns in sentences. The string the less in the Caesar example is not one of those. Brutus was not saying that he did not love "Caesar the little", right?
Yes. Usually with the superlative, the words are still clearly adjectives or adverbs, but not always. The word the frequently appears with comparatives or superlatives. The examples you give are bona fide nouns. It might be possible to say "Not that I loved Caesar a little," but less is better here. In English we would say a little. The little would be a group, like the examples you gave of the rich, the poor, and the young.
Now more about "the lesser of the two evils."Can you say "the less of the evil" or "the less of the five evils"? We cannot say those things, right? I think the reason is because in those examples, the comparison becomes unclear. So "the less of the two evils" is a comparative usage, right?
You asked two questions. First, we cannot say "the less of the evil" or "the less of the five evils" because neither is comparative. In the first there is only one thing. We could say, "Less evil" or "lesser evil," but since there is only one evil thing, there is nothing to compare. In the other case, we would want the superlative since there are more than two things being compared: "The least of the five evils."

You may say, "the less of the two evils," and less in that phrase would be comparative. Less and lesser are both used and in many cases mean essentially the same thing. However, remember the precise difference as mentioned in Grammar Slammer. Less suggests amount; lesser suggests degree. Still there's more...

In "a year less two months," the phrase "less two months" is adjectival in nature and it modifies year. How can we just say that Less is an adjective to year. What is "a less year"? Just because we can say "two years minus a years" we cannot say that minus is an adjective to year, can we?
Well, in the examples you gave both less and minus are adjectives. When using expressions of time or distance we often have adjectives reflecting amounts follow the noun that they modify. For example, "Koestler took four years to write his book. Orwell took a year less." We do not say, "A less year." We say, "A year less." It does not change the part of the speech of less, only the idiom. Minus is an adjective. It comes from Latin where it is an adjective also.

We hope we answered our correspondent's questions. Perhaps if you had any questions on these matters, this will help you, too.

What Does This Show Us?
The example of less actually shows the way the language has changed over time. In old English, prior to 1066, less was always comparative. By 1500 this was no longer the case. This also has happened to other words.

Originally there were nigh, near, and next. We still use all three words but near and next no longer have their original comparative and superlative meaning. (To be old-fashioned, think of "near"="nigher" and "next"="nighest.") Indeed, now we say near, nearer, and nearest. Next means "adjacent to," and nigh usually means "nearly" or the same as near.

Similarly there were late, latter, and last. Now late is one word with later and latest as its comparative and superlative, respectively. Latter usually just means "second of two" and has lost in most cases the sense of lateness. Last has taken on a different meaning as well.

It appears that the same kind of thing has happened to less, perhaps, as with near and latter, it does not really sound like a comparative any more, so people do not sense that they should use it that way.

Two Other Questions You Have Asked -- A Preview of Things to Come from English Plus+

Does English Plus+ Have a Grammar Checker?

We believe Grammar Slammer is the best English grammar reference tool for Windows. Many people have asked us if we also have a grammar checking program.

After we completed the original Grammar Slammer in 1995, we were more concerned about updating it for Windows 95 and subsequent versions. We also figured that most full-featured word processors already had grammar checkers built in. Why compete with Microsoft, Corel, and Lotus? However, we realize that not everyone who would like a grammar checker uses one of those word processors. We also have learned that many people who visited our web site or other download sites were looking for a grammar checker, not just a reference tool.

What do we say now when people ask us? We are working on it. We would, of course, like to integrate it as much as possible with Grammar Slammer. Also we believe users of Grammar Slammer Deluxe might like a spelling checker as well. We had hoped to complete this project by the end of August. While it does not look like we are going to meet that deadline, we will let you know about it through our newsletter as soon as it is available.

Do You Have Grammar Slammer for My Non-PC Machine?

Some of our satisfied customers have asked about Grammar Slammer or Grammar Slammer Deluxe for other systems. We get numerous inquiries about Macintosh systems. Occasionally we get inquiries about UNIX. Lately, we have had people ask us about suing Grammar Slammer on handheld computers and PDA's. Wouldn't it be nice to have the same English grammar and spelling information at your fingertips even if you were not at a Windows PC?

Once again, we are working on it. We have tested various formats and systems, and we hope to be coming out soon with Grammar Slammer or Grammar Slammer Deluxe for other media. We want to vanquish all the anguish we can! Keep an eye on upcoming editions of this newsletter for more information.

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