“Less” or “Fewer”

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  • Nancy Tuten

    13 September 2019

    “Less” or “Fewer”

    Quite a few articles on this site address confusing word pairs, including effect and affect, sit and set, lay and lie, and bad and badly. This article addresses the confusion that sometimes arises when we are trying to decide whether to use less or fewer.

    Many of us need go no farther than our local grocery store check-out lanes to see an example of confusion between less and fewer. These two adjectives are not interchangeable, but keeping them straight isn’t too difficult once we understand the fundamental difference between them.

    Less or Fewer?

    Do you know which of the following sentences uses less or fewer correctly?

    1. Less people attended this morning’s meeting than we had expected.
    2. The committee’s report contains less pages than the one from last year.
    3. The new potato chips are less filling because they have fewer calories than the older kind.
    4. My glass has less water in it than yours.

    The last two sentences get it right.

    Fewer Describes Anything That Can Be Counted

    We should have said “fewer people” in the first example and “fewer pages” in the second because we can count people and pages.

    In the third sentence, “fewer calories” is correct because calories can indeed be counted.

    Less Describes Anything That Cannot Be Counted

    The use of less in the third and fourth sentences is correct because filling and water are not things that can be counted.

    Notice how often grocery items announce on their packages that they have “less calories.”  These products should announce instead that they have “fewer calories,” though they might aptly add that as a result of having fewer calories, they very often have less taste.

    An Inconsistently Applied Rule

    Webster’s points out that despite this commonly held distinction, English speakers and writers have been using less for countable nouns as long as the language has been in existence.  Somewhere along the way, the idea that we should use fewer for countable nouns took hold, and now most style books advocate this usage rule.

    However, Webster’s also notes that some uses of less for countable nouns have become widely accepted, such as “an essay of 250 words or less.” I would argue, though, that here we are talking about the length of the essay, and although we could certainly argue that the expression refers to “fewer words,” it could also mean “an essay of shorter [less] length.”

    Another example that Webster’s cites is “one less worry,” which we more often hear as “one less thing to worry about.” Very few people (if any) would say “one fewer worry” or “one fewer thing to worry about.”

    As with many usage issues, we have to consider our audience: some people hold fast to the distinction between less and fewer, while others couldn’t care less. In professional writing situations, however, we should adhere to the style book chosen by our company, agency, or organization, and most style books encourage us to use fewer to mean not as many (in reference to a countable noun) and less to mean not as much (in reference to a single noun or amount).

    TEST YOURSELF

    Which word, less or fewer, is correct in front of these words?

    1. ______ mistakes on the test
    2. ______ deductions on his tax return
    3. ______ room for error
    4. ______ cause for alarm
    5. ______ causes for the accident
    6. ______ money
    7. ______ dollars
    8. ______ time
    9. ______ days
    10. ______ problems
    11. ______ stress
    12. ______ headaches

    Answers below.

    ANSWERS

    1. fewer mistakes on the test
    2. fewer deductions on his tax return
    3. less room for error
    4. less cause for alarm
    5. fewer causes for the accident
    6. less money
    7. fewer dollars
    8. less time
    9. fewer days
    10. fewer problems
    11. less stress
    12. fewer headaches

    Copyright 2000 Get It Write. Revised 2019.