Has Boris Johnson made the ultimate gaffe — confusing fewer with less? In his keynote speech on Brexit at Policy Exchange this morning he spoke the following line: “The first is that this is simply a strategic or geo-strategic mistake: on this view, Britain is an offshore island comprising fewer than one per cent of humanity.”
Fewer? Fewer? The correct usage of fewer is with a countable number of things, for example, “he has fewer brain cells than fat cells”. One could argue, in this context, that it is the one per cent that is the number to which he refers to by fewer. But that is itself just a percentage of humanity, an indivisible concept. And for that, you would use “less.”
Boris is so proud of the heritage of the English language that he regularly spouts our first great lexicographer, Samuel Johnson. Has he slipped up?
The Londoner consulted The Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A, which says this: “In my opinion, ‘less than five per cent’ could be added to the list of plural nouns that denote a measure of time, amount or distance —where five per cent is analogous to $400.
“A big reason I would say this is that ‘less than’ refers primarily to ‘five per cent’, which only in turn is an expression of the number of women.
“But if instead of five per cent we were talking about, say, 26.7 per cent (eg, eight of 30 women), you could see that the percentage itself is an amount that cannot be counted.”
The Londoner has been trying to call Oliver Kamm, Times commentator and author of Accidence will Happen: the Non-Pedantic Guide to English, for his opinion.
Today Kamm condemned the Foreign Secretary as “not intellectually nugatory, just idle and incompetent” but he is much more liberal about his use of language. But would he be more forgiving about this grammar question? No answer.