Spot the horrible effect introduced here by an over-picky Wall Street Journal subeditor:
Quite often, these games don't even turn out to be good: Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.
That "10 points or fewer" phrase on the end is a desperate and quite ridiculous effort at obeying the prescriptive rule that you should use fewer for all things that can be counted, and less only for mass quantities.
I should stress, to forestall misunderstanding, that I agree there is a difference in the distribution of less and fewer. I myself would say You should drink fewer beers and You should drink less beer. And certainly I find *You should drink fewer beer unthinkable. But there is an asymmetry here, which is one of the many things the prescriptivists fail to realize: while *fewer beer is completely ungrammatical (for every American speaker, I would think), less beers is merely informal. A guy on a 3-day week at the construction site who says I'll just have to buy less beers on a Friday night isn't showing that he can't tell less from fewer; he knows the difference perfectly well (when the boss says he'll be working fewer hours he knows exactly what that means), but the range of cases where he will choose less is wider than it is for some other speakers (a bit wider than the range I would accept, in fact).
However, with many countable objects it just isn't true that less is unacceptable for most Standard English speakers and writers, even for educated speakers using formal style. Take counting of time periods in days, for example. Here the prescriptive rule is particularly far away from matching normal usage: Your package will arrive in seven days or less is far better than ?Your package will arrive in seven days or fewer; but the prescriptivists and subeditors seem deaf to such matters. They want an easy mechanical rule. (Language Log first treated this topic at length here; see also this post and this one, about supermarkets intimidated into changing their "10 ITEMS OR LESS" signs.)
In the Wall Street Journal example above, the quantity referred to is a points range, and less would have been ideal: everyone accepts less than 11 points, and there is nothing wrong with 10 points or less in this context either.
What makes the miscorrected version particularly risible is that the miscorrection creates an echo: the clause after the colon both begins and ends with fewer, and sounds appalling as a result. But the subeditor was deaf to this fact too.
It's not the first time, by any means, that I have seen something grossly unacceptable published because someone felt that the more acceptable version violated some kind of misbegotten prescriptive rule out of Strunk & White or some other vile manual of bad advice, or some myopic subeditor changed something without even reading the whole clause — without looking at even a dozen preceding words of context.
I almost despair when I see this sort of asininity. America seems to be a nation of cowed and abused users of the English language, constantly fearing punishment for violation of crassly inaccurate and simplistic rules that they do not understand, rules enforced by stupid style manuals, ignorant writing instructors, dimwitted editors, and their cowardly henchmen.
Rise up, America! You threw off the chains of British rule in 1776! Throw off the chains of the prescriptive poppycock that originates from the very same country in the very same century!
Oh… what's the use. A whole lot of you are probably going to write in the comments area below that you actually like the Journal sentence quoted above, and approve of the mechanical less/fewer rule. I give up.
Hat tip to a brave and rebellious American and WSJ reader, Ron Irving, of Seattle.