While the television series Game of Thrones has much to offer — dragons, epic battles and gratuitous nudity, it also appears to be pandering to a unique segment of the viewing public — copyeditors. A subtle running gag throughout the series has been the grammatical correction of the use of the word “less” when “fewer” is meant. Although the rules around the choice between these words can get complex, the basics are as follows:

If you want a simple rule, the difference between less and fewer is straightforward: The traditional advice is that fewer is for things you count, and less is for things you don’t count… but another way to think about the difference that also takes care of some of the exceptions to the simple rule is to use less for singular nouns and fewer for plural nouns…Time, money, distance, and weight are often listed as exceptions to the traditional “can you count it” rule because they take less, but when you use the “singular or plural” rule, time, money, distance, and weight all fall in line.

There’s something glorious in seeing kings and knights taking time out for grammar pedantry.

Note: the short clips below are generally spoiler-free, but feature characters in locations, so if you’re trying to avoid Game of Thrones spoilers, view at your own risk.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


4 Thoughts on "Game of Thrones, Copyeditor’s Edition"

Surely it’s more to do with the individual characters? Stannis was portrayed as an extremely competent but deeply uncharismatic individual, who in a richer and more technically-adept culture could usefully fulfill any number of valuable intellectual roles, but would have no talent for public relations – just the sort of person who can plan a good military campaign while alienating his most important colleagues because he is forever correcting their grammar. Davos, by contrast, is someone whose evident talents as a stateman have been wasted all his life (spending most of it as a smuggler, and only by chance coming to the attention of an aristocrat who could actually make good use of him) but is a very quick learner – and is only now learning how to speak proper. I mean properly!

I’m thinking it has to do with pandering to their viewership. Just take a look at a few online messageboards and you’ll find plenty of people contributing little more than correcting others’ spelling mistakes and providing unsolicited grammar advice.

Bits like that offer them an opportunity to identify with or relate to the show’s characters, increasing the likelihood that they’ll latch on and religiously follow the series.

I get annoyed whenever I go through a checkout line at Walmart or the grocery store and read “10 items or less.” But I haven’t figured out how the rules apply to this lyric from Ariana Grande’s song “Problem”: “I got one less problem without you.” Help me out here.

> or < signs. More than or fewer than? Greater than or less than. If you're referring to a count, less works. If you're referring to a collective, fewer is usually preferred. So, "they have fewer men" is clearer. But Ariana is correct to use "less" because she's moving left along the number line. I would also assert that "10 items or less" works if you finish the elision with "than 10."

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