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What is LESS in this sentence?

The population of Pakistan is "less" than that of China.
a) adjective
b) noun
c) pronoun
d) adverb

Why is less adverb here? Is he using population as a verb? This question is from my book of job exams. I am really confuse because the answer is "adverb". Adverb is a word or phrase that modifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree. So why less is adverb here?

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To start, here is what Merriam-Webster says about less:

adjective
comparative of LITTLE ENTRY 1 [not big]
1 : constituting a more limited number or amount
// less than three
// less than half done
2 : of lower rank, degree, or importance
// no less a person than the president himself
3 a : of reduced size, extent, or degree
b : more limited in quantity
// in less time

adverb
comparative of LITTLE ENTRY 2 [not much]
: to a lesser extent or degree
less and less
: to a progressively smaller size or extent
less than
: by no means : not at all
// less than honest in his replies


This is less than satisfying. (No pun intended.) I can detect enough of a pattern between these two uses that I'd probably be able to guess sufficiently well in most cases—but I'd still like something a little more concrete than what is said here.


Things get a bit more interesting if I look at other dictionaries.

Oxford Dictionaries primarily provides only an adverbial definition of less. It does indicate an archaic adjectival definition of less (Of lower rank or importance: 'James the Less'), but that doesn't concern the distinction here.

Also, if I look at Collins, it has sections for "less in British" and "less in American." The British section only lists it as an adverb—and indicates that UK English makes use of only a single sense of little. Meanwhile, the American section lists it as both an adjective and an adverb, with each of those making use of a different sense of little.

Similarly, Cambridge Dictionary provides an entry for its function as an adjective—but only in its section on American English. Its main entry doesn't include it as an adjective anywhere.

This tells me that in UK English less is never an adjective. It's only in US English that it is sometimes used as an adjective.


In conclusion, if this was a test based on UK English, then it makes sense that the answer would indicate it is an adverb. (Because there seems to be no concept of less as an adjective in UK English.)

If we go by Merriam-Webster, the interpretation is less clear. It seems at least somewhat open to interpretation. If forced to guess, I'd call it an adjective in the sentence in question.

  • Personally, I think it means British lexicographers have a stick somewhere uncomfortable about it. I'm British, and I'd say its use in this example is adjectival. The logic of when it is in the definitions I've found that encompass American understandings makes sense. And it's actually used in the same situations and manners in British as it is in American. The usage isn't different on the opposite sides of the Atlantic - the analysis is, I reckon. – SamBC Feb 25 at 21:29
  • +1 It's definitely an adjective. Some people would say that be can be modified by an adverb, but I beg to differ. – Lucian Sava Feb 26 at 8:59
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I would analyse "less" as an adjective in this sentence. Compare

The steam is hot. The steam is hotter than the ice.

Here "hot" and "hotter" are clearly adjectives.

The temperature of the steam is higher.

Here the word "higher" is an adjective. It describes the temperature.

The temperature of the steam is higher than that of the ice.

Adding a "than" phrase doesn't change my analysis.

The temperature of the ice is less than that of the steam.

Less here is used in exactly the same way as a comparative adjective.

The population of Pakistan is less than that of China.

I say that here too, the word "less" is a comparative adjective.

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