As a GMAT aficionado, I often find GMAT themes in everyday things. This is what happened last week when I was listening to the radio and Ariana Grande’s “Problem” started playing. I’d heard the song before, and despite its catchy melody, there is a glaring grammatical error in the chorus. This may not be that surprising: songs in general are dubious sources of grammar to begin with, and R&B songs often take additional liberties with their lyrics (Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” jumps to mind). However this error is the kind a lot of people make in their daily speech, so I figured I’d use it as an opportunity to improve our grammatical skills beyond what we hear on the radio.
Firstly, if you’ve never heard the song, please feel free to listen to it now. The chorus is discussing how Ariana would have “one less problem” without the person she’s currently serenading (surprisingly this isn’t a Taylor Swift song). The issue with the lyric is that problems are countable, and as such she should actually be singing “one fewer problem without you”. Perhaps the extra syllable messed up the harmony, or perhaps the songwriter hadn’t brushed up on their grammar prior to writing the song, but this is the type of issue students often struggle with because they don’t understand the underlying rule.
When it comes to counting things, there are two broad categories: items that are countable, and items that are not countable. The former comprises most tangible things we can imagine: computers, cars, cats, cookies, cans of Coke and countless conceivable commodities (This sentence brought to you by the letter C). The latter comprises things that are uncountable, such as water, sand or hair. You can count grains of sand or strands of hair, but you cannot count actual sand or hair, so these words get treated a little differently.
The rule is that for any noun that is countable, you must use “fewer” if you are going to decrease it. For any noun that is not countable, you must use “less” to decrease it. As an example, I want less water in my cup; I do not want fewer water in my cup. That example makes sense to most people. However, the converse is just as true: I want fewer bottles of water, not less bottles of water. If the item in question is scarce, similar words will be used. You can say that there is little water, but you wouldn’t say that there is few water left. Note how these words have the same etymology as “less” and “fewer”, respectively.
If the sentence calls for an increase, more is acceptable for both countable and uncountable elements. As an example, you can say that you want more water in your cup, or you can say that you want more bottles of water. Other synonyms exist as well, of course, but the delineation is much cleaner for decreases than for increases, so that structure appears more often on the GMAT. If the item in question is in abundance, similar words will also be used. You can say that there is much water, but you can’t say that there is many water. Much and many follow these same countable/uncountable rules.
The difference between items that are countable or uncountable is not unique to the GMAT, these rules apply to everyday language, they are simply enforced more rigorously on this test. Failure to choose the proper word in a Sentence Correction problem will result in an incorrect answer choice. As such, it behooves us to be aware of the grammatical difference between countable and uncountable elements, as it regularly comes up on the GMAT.
Let’s look at an example to illustrate the point:
The controversial restructuring plan for the county school district, if approved by the governor, would result in 20% fewer teachers and 10% less classroom contact-time throughout schools in the county.
A) in 20% fewer teachers and 10% less
B) in 20% fewer teachers and 10% fewer
C) in 20% less teachers and 10% less
D) with 20% fewer teachers and 10% fewer
E) with 20% less teachers and 10% less
Looking at the answer choices, it becomes fairly clear that the correct answer will hinge primarily on the difference between “fewer” and “less”. If we recall the rules for countable vs. uncountable, anything that we can count must use the adjective “fewer”, while anything that is not countable must use the adjective “less”.
For this example, the first reduction is in the number of teachers. Teachers are human beings (often handsome ones!), and are therefore countable. You can want to spend less time with a specific teacher, but you cannot (correctly) say that you want the school to have less teachers. The request must be for fewer teachers. This already eliminates answer choices C and E because they use the incorrect term.
The second reduction is about classroom time. Time is a wondrous and magical thing (or so young people tell me), but it is not countable. Yes, you can break up time into countable units, such as seconds or minutes, just as you can break up sand into grams or ounces, but holistically time is intangible and therefore uncountable. The plan calls for less time in the classroom, not fewer time. This eliminates answer choices B and D because they use the incorrect term. Only answer A remains and it is indeed the correct answer.
As mentioned earlier, the rules around countable and uncountable nouns are fairly precise, but you are unlikely to be corrected in everyday conversation if you misuse a term. Since the GMAT is testing logic, precision and general attention to detail, it is a perfect type of question to try and trap hurried students who don’t always notice the difference. In daily conversation (and on the radio), you can often get away with imprecision in language. However, if you understand the nuances between countable and uncountable nouns, to paraphrase Ariana Grande, you’ll have one fewer problem on the GMAT.
Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam. After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.