Some of you will have seen this HBF sign (and shuddered) as you sped down the Bumpkobahn to Prevvers and Margs. Someone was enraged enough to email HBF after they had stopped shuddering: here is the correspondence.
HBF replied: Thanks for your email regarding the ‘less gaps’ advertising. You’re quite right too, the traditional use of ‘less’ is used for amounts that can’t be counted (eg ‘there is less water in the bottle’ as opposed to ‘there are fewer people in the room’).
I believe the copy writer who wrote this campaign intended to use the word as an adjective (meaning smaller in size, amount or degree). This is a common colloquial use of the word – but you’re right, it’s not traditionally accurate.
The English language is certainly complex as we have so many words with similar meanings – and culturally we seem to play with language too, resulting in some interesting communications! That said, at HBF we generally prefer to stick to traditional rules of grammar.
When launching the advertising, we were aware that ‘fewer gaps’ was the correct term, but chose to take a bit of creative licence as the campaign was based on a ‘less’ and ‘more’ concept (eg More hospitals to choose from, less gaps, more hospital charges covered etc), so ‘less’ and ‘more’ had a better advertising ‘ring’ to it than ‘fewer’ and ‘more’.
We appreciate the feedback. It’s always good to hear how our advertising is perceived so we can take all comments on board in the future.
The response to the reply was: Thank you so much for replying — I somehow imagined my email had flown off into the ether.
I also imagine that you really do not want to engage in further discussion, and would rather your polite reply had put an end to this matter.
But as a linguist and editor, I cannot accept your description of a grammatical tenet as “traditional”, or indeed anything with which anyone can “take a bit of creative licence”.
We are talking ad copy here; not Sylvia Plath.
The assumption of your second par is simply wrong. Less is not the comparative form of the adjective and cannot possibly mean “smaller“.
Fewer is as common and easily understood an opposite of “more” as “less”.
With respect and appreciation for its well-developed and modified grammar, we can allow our language to evolve, which is the natural and philosophically logical process.
What your ad copy allows, and perpetuates, is mutation, which is change of a very different and undesirable nature.