More is less

When I first started using Unix, I used a program called “more” to read files. The name makes sense because each time you press the space bar, more will show you more of your file, one screen at a time.

Now everyone uses less, and more is all but forgotten.

Daniel Halbert wrote more in 1978. Mark Nudelman a similar program with more functionality in 1984 which he named less. The name was a pun on the aphorism “less is more” [1]. Soon less completely replaced more.

I’m curious why I ever used more, since less had taken over before I touched Unix. One possibility is that someone who was accustomed to more showed me that command. Another possibility is that I learned it from reading The Unix Programming Environment which came out in November 1983. It includes more but not less.

My laptop contains executables for more and less in /usr/bin. The command

    diff less more

returns nothing, indicating that the binaries are identical: less literally is more.

My desktop has distinct binaries for less and more. The more binary is much smaller, and so I assume it is limited to the original functionality of more, more or less.

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[1] I don’t know who coined the phrase “less is more,” but it is associated with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) who often quoted it. He did not apply the principle to is own name, however. He was born Ludwig Mies and later appended van der Rohe.

8 thoughts on “More is less

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” from 1855 as the first recorded use of “less is more”. The phrase is used in a dialogic sense, so perhaps it was in common use by the mid 1850s.

  2. Just FYI if you are using more on MacOS you are literally using less. If you type ‘more –version’ into the terminal you get:

    > more –version
    less 581.2 (POSIX regular expressions)
    Copyright (C) 1984-2021 Mark Nudelman

  3. It’s curious that there is a separate binary called “more” that is a duplicate of the “less” binary. I wonder why they didn’t just make “more” an alias to “less.”

  4. ‘less’ does have some nice capabilities. For example, on ubuntu if I do less on a pdf file, it shows me the text contents of the pdf. Doing ‘more’ on pdf just displays the raw pdf.

  5. I had no idea less could read a PDF.

    That violates the Unix philosophy that a tool should do only one thing, but it could be very handy. :)

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