8

We've already found more than a million species, but unearthing the rest was thought to be an impossible task.
But now it seems an army of amateur scientists have taken up the cause. A new study concludes that, thanks to them, we're in a golden age of discovery, with 20,000 new finds charted each year.

There could also be far fewer plants and animals left for them to find. The researchers say rather than tens of millions of species living on Earth, there could be between two and eight million.
(BBC Learning English)

With what does ‘far fewer’ compare – far fewer than what?

11

There are far fewer than previously thought. It's not stated, but read the next sentence:

The researchers say rather than tens of millions of species living on Earth, there could be between two and eight million.

This suggests that the previous estimates were too high. Since we've only found "more than a million species" and we previously thought there were "tens of millions", it can't be that we've discovered that many; the numbers simply don't add up. If the differences were due to mass extinctions or some other apocalyptic event, the article would probably mention that, too. Therefore, the only reasonable interpretation is that the estimates have been revised down.

Therefore, researchers previously thought there were more; now they think there are far fewer.

  • Valid points. But regardless, the comparison is to the number previously used, whether it was decreased by discovery or by re-estimation. – Ken Bellows Feb 19 '13 at 13:36
  • This is the right answer. OP's citation is slightly "loose", in that the "referent" for far fewer isn't explicitly stated, but there's no question that's what it refers to. – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '13 at 16:53
4

In this case, the article suggests that there are "far fewer plants and animals left for [scientists/researchers] to find" than there were in the past. The implication is that there were a huge number in the past, before we found them all, but as time passes and more and more species are discovered, that number continually wanes, to the point that it's been considered by some "to be an impossible task". (See edit at bottom of post.)

When a comparison is used like this, with no immediately obvious "than ..." clause (e.g. "far fewer than ..."), it can usually be assumed that the author means "than in the past", or some variation.

Some examples:

  • "Joseph Kony’s rebel group LRA killed far fewer civilians in 2012, group finds" - far fewer than in previous years

  • "Algerians Find Many More Dead at Hostage Site" - many more than they had previously

Counter example, since it isn't always this way:

  • "Work is so much less stressful this way" - Less stressful than other ways. In this case, since the writer specified "this way", the implication is "than the alternative way".

Hopefully this makes sense. Ultimately, as with most things in English, it's based on context.

EDIT: In response to comments from @snailplane and @FumbleFingers, it is very likely that the article is implying "fewer than previously estimated", rather than "fewer than there were in the past, before we found them". The re-estimation work performed recently has changed the number of species thought to exist, as stated in the last sentence ("The researchers say rather than tens of millions of species living on Earth, there could be between two and eight million.").

  • When I read the sentence, "[t]he researchers say rather than tens of millions of species living on Earth, there could be between two and eight million", it sounds to me like the estimates have been revised down, so the difference doesn't just come from finding new species. We certainly haven't discovered eight million species recently! – snailboat Feb 19 '13 at 13:22
  • @snailplane This is possible, but the reason I answered that it was due to findings is the author's usage of "left to find", as in "there were more, but only a few are left". Left implies a removal of something from the original reservoir, so to speak, not a change in the size of the reservoir. So it seems to me that either we found a bunch of species (not necessarily just recently, but over time) or a bunch of species died off before we could find them, which seems like an unlikely interpretation. Thoughts? – Ken Bellows Feb 19 '13 at 13:27
  • My comment was too long for a comment, so I made it into a full answer. – snailboat Feb 19 '13 at 13:33
  • 2
    @KenB: Downvote reversed. Everything else you say looks completely valid to me. It's no bad thing that you cover the more general case of far fewer, since OP's particular example is slightly atypical in that it doesn't explicitly state far fewer than what. – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '13 at 21:31

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