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Last week I read an AP newspaper article that included the phrase "less than 10 minutes." Knowing that minutes are count nouns, I dismissed it as an editorial oversight. This week a student showed me a TOEFL practice question from his textbook that read, "... if not treated, the victim can die in less than 5 minutes." However, "less than" was not treated as a mistake.

According to Celce-Murcia (1983), there are formal and informal uses for "less;" however, I would like to know if "less than + time" has become standard and if anyone knows what the folks at ETS are doing with it on the TOEFL.

Thank you,
Debbie Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell
USF, Tampa,Florida USA
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The "ten minutes" is treated as one unit. Betty Azar in "Understanding and Using English Grammar" says, on a chart on page 92:

"Expressions of time, money, and distance usually require a singular verb."

Eight hours of sleep is enough.

Ten dollars is too much to pay.

Five thousand miles is too far to travel.

The Cambridge Preparation for the TOEFL Test, Second Edition (1996) states on page 123:

"Collective nouns refer to an entire group. When a collective noun* indicates a period of time, a sum of money, or a measurement, it takes a singular verb.

Two weeks is enough time to finish the contract.

Ten dollars is all I have.

Seven pounds is an average weight for a newborn.

This singular idea is also expressed when we say things such as:

Please give me another five minutes.

We need another forty-five dollars to pay for the repair work.

Keep your chin up – we have only another three miles to go.

With this in mind – that the ten minutes is one unit – the minutes are not considered individually as count nouns and would not be modified by "few" or "fewer". It's logical to modify the unit with "less," as it is in "less time" and "less money."

*While "collective noun" usually refers to a group -- such as family, committee, staff, team -- that takes a singurlar verb when referring to the whole, Cambridge has expanded the meaning of the term to include the period of time, the sum of money, or the measurement. Other references might not include these constructions under "collective nouns." However, the description is a good one as the unit -- comprised of a group of singular count nouns -- is treated as a singular, just as are family, committee, etc.
Last edited by Rachel, Moderator

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