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Fewer spam?

January 29, 2010

Every time I log into Google Mail, they promise me less spam. The thing is, I’m not sure if I want them to.

Just in case you don’t know what spam, in this context, is, Google Mail is kind enough to tell us. Keep unwanted messages out of your inbox.

I know that I want fewer unwanted messages, and I most certainly don’t want less. So that means I want fewer spam too, right?

But this test isn’t sufficient. Is spam directly equivalent to unwanted messages? Or is spam to unwanted messages what hair is to hairs?

No. I’m right. I know I’m right. You can have less hair on your head because the hairs may be shorter, rather than less numerous. Google Mail doesn’t put less spam in your inbox by chopping the bottom third off all those Viagra emails.

Now then, where can I find the email address of whoever’s in charge of the Google Mail sign-in page?…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2010 4:12 pm

    Hmm, I think you’re wrong but since I never realised there was a difference between the words “less” and “fewer” until you taught me the difference last year, I am barely qualified to comment.

    But when has that stopped me…

    I think the problem is with how you define the word “Spam”. If you read it as “unwanted messages” then you are right because I want fewer unwanted messages.
    However, if you define spam as “Unsolicited bulk email”, well then it doesn’t sound right because I want less of that.

    I think the problem is that “Spam” can be both a category and single article.

    Is a similar comparison to say I should eat less sugar by putting fewer sugars in my tea?

    Or perhaps the problem is that spam can refer to a single item and also be plural. How would you write the following sentences?
    Since activating my spam filter, I now receive [less|fewer] email.
    There are [less|fewer] sheep in Jersey.

  2. February 1, 2010 4:30 pm

    I would use “fewer” in both of your examples.

    “Guernsey has fewer sheep than Jersey” “Since activating my spam filter, I now see fewer emails in my inbox than I used to.”

    But as I said in a real-world conversation today, I’m not 100% sure that I want Google to offer me fewer spam; hence the question mark in the title. But it certainly sits better with me that “less”.

    *Google Mail: Fewer spam in your inbox*

  3. February 4, 2010 9:12 pm

    I think it’s to do with countability. Emails are countable. Email isn’t. Spam emails are countable. Spam isn’t.

    Fewer spam emails or less spam.

  4. February 5, 2010 3:29 pm

    Hi Pete,

    You’re right that, in terms of the correct use of “fewer” or “less”, it’s all about “countability” (or, perhaps more accurately, the grammatical number of the noun in question). So we have singular nouns, such as sugar, hair and time, which all take less, and plural nouns, such as men, shoes and notes, which all take fewer.

    Oh, and we also have fish, which can be either, according to the context.

    So, picture the scene; you’ve taken your wife on a romantic weekend away in the country, and whilst out for a drive in the frog-eyed sprite you’ve hired for the occasion, your good lady says “Goodness, look at all the sheep in that field”.

    Back in the office on Monday morning, you’re taking a break from pair-programming when your partner looks over at your screen and says “Goodness, look at all the spam in that inbox”.

    That’s how I view spam; dotted through my inbox like sheep through a field. That’s the closest I can come to best describing why, for me, it’s both fewer spam emails and fewer spam.

    (Unless I were in a restaurant, in which case I’d definitely ask for less).

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