Usage and Grammar

Q. Can “fewest” mean zero? Example: Which desk has the fewest number of books? If one desk has no books, does that desk contain the fewest? Or must “fewest” refer to a number (however small) that is greater than zero?

A. Think about the desk. If it doesn’t have more books than the other desks, and it doesn’t have the same number of books, what’s left? It must have the fewest. But if several desks have no books, then our desk does not have the fewest, and it’s clearer to say that it has no books. (Was that a trick question?)