Fewer vs. Less: Why It Depends on What You're Counting
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Fewer vs. Less: Why It Depends on What You’re Counting

How many times have you walked into the grocery store and seen a checkout sign that says “10 items or less?” How many times has that made you wildly angry? If the answer to the second question is more than one, you might be a grammar nerd (like me).

If you don’t understand the second question, this might be the post for you. It’s entirely possible that you simply don’t allow small things like a grocery store checkout sign to make you seethe with rage, and for that I commend you.

Fewer vs. less: What's the difference?

Fewer vs. less: What’s the difference?

However, it’s also possible that you can never quite remember the difference between less and fewer. This is completely understandable; a lot of people mix up these two comparative adjectives. So what is the difference?

Comparative adjectives

Comparative adjectives have a pretty self-explanatory name. They qualify as adjectives because they are descriptive words, and they are comparative because they are used to describe the relationship between two nouns. Comparative adjectives are words such as larger, taller, prettier, or fewer and also words like more and less. One of the biggest reasons that people confuse the words less and fewer is that they both function as opposites of the word more.

More can mean greater in number or greater in amount, but to say opposite of more requires two words: fewer (smaller in number) and less (smaller in amount).

Countable or not

The most common rule to distinguish between fewer and less is to determine whether the noun you need to modify is countable or uncountable. Countable nouns can be broken down into singular units. These are words like books, cats, hugs, or items. Use fewer to modify countable nouns.

Example:

I currently own fewer books than the library does, but I’m trying to catch up.

Uncountable nouns such as water, love, or praise cannot be broken down into singular units. You can’t have just one water or just one praise. Use less to modify these nouns.

Example:

The movie’s sequel got less praise from fans, but I thought it was just as good.

Some uncountable nouns can be measured by their pieces or parts, which can confuse the fewer/less issue further. Let’s talk about cake, for example. Cake is uncountable. It’s a single entity. Only when you break down pieces of cake does it become countable. So you can ask for less cake or fewer pieces of cake, but you’d never ask for fewer cake.

Examples:

They cut the cake into larger slices, so they ended up with fewer slices of cake.

I need to eat less cake — please cut me a smaller slice.

Exceptions

Exceptions to the countable/uncountable rule such as time, money, distance, and weight can throw a wrench in everything we just learned, so many sources suggest using a “singular or plural” rule when deciding on less or fewer.

All of the below exceptions require the word less, even though measures of time, money, distance, and weight are often countable.

Hours, dollars, miles, and pounds are all countable, but they can function as singular amounts.

Examples:

Eight hours is a long time to wait.

200 pounds is too much for me to lift.

All of these quantities take a singular verb, so they all also take less instead of fewer when used like this.

Examples:

I have less than $1,000 to my name.

She lives less than a mile from her school.

Whichever rule you choose to use, just remember that some scholars have noted that less was historically used for countable nouns for a very long time, and some say that it’s still acceptable in some cases. So maybe we should cut our grocery stores some slack.

These handy rules might help you spend LESS time stressing about your writing and make FEWER mistakes... at least if the source of your stress is the distinction between less and fewer. #writing #grammar #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

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Cassie LaJeunesse

About Cassie

Cassie LaJeunesse is doing everything in her power to prove wrong the people who scoffed at her English degree. A former college newspaper editor, she now writes and edits content for a regional magazine. She also finds time to freelance for her alma mater and other publications, writing and editing in a variety of styles and subjects. Now that she has completed her degree, she uses her free time to read as much as possible, sing in a choir, and hang out with her cat, Gilbert.

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