Grammar-ease – Less versus fewer

Welcome to a new grammar tip.

I like finding ways to remember grammar ‘rules’ and when something clicks for me, it might also click for someone else.

Let’s dive in today with the less/fewer differences. Less is used with mass nouns and fewer is used with count nouns. A mass noun, also referred to as an ‘amount word’, is something that is measured in bulk – clutter, water, snow, milk, syrup, etc. A count noun, also referred to as a ‘number word’, is something you can count – books, pens, cards, paperclips, oranges, etc.

Examples:

There are ____ boys in class than on the roster.

Can you count boys? Yes. Use fewer.

There was _____ snow this year than last year, so the kids had _____ snow days to make up.

Can you count snow? No. Use less. Can you count days? Yes. Use fewer.

Try these:

____ tangerines to eat   [Can you count them? Yes.]

____ sugar to bake with   [Refers to bulk as written. Cups of sugar can be counted.]

____ frozen dinners to thaw   [Can you count them? Yes.]

____ onions to slice   [Can you count them? Yes.]

____ tomato juice   [Refers to bulk as written. Cups of juice can be counted.]

____ coffee to make   [Refers to bulk as written. Cups of coffee can be counted.]

____ cups of lemonade   [Can you count them? Yes.]

____ water in the pond   [Refers to bulk as written. Gallons of water can be counted.]

____ clams for dinner   [Can you count them? Yes.]

____ clutter on the table   [Refers to bulk as written. Piles of clutter can be counted.]

Exceptions. There are always exceptions, aren’t there? Even though you can count hours, dollars, and miles, you want to use less.

Examples: We traveled less than twenty miles.

The reception lasted less than two hours.

We made an investment of less than a hundred dollars.

If you refer to individual units, then use fewer. Example: I have fewer than six state quarters.

You know how there’s usually a lane at the grocery store with the sign “10 items or less”? It sounds better than “10 items or fewer,” doesn’t it? “Less” is grammatically wrong because you can count items.

So, the general rule is: if you can count something, use fewer; if you can’t count it, use less.

I hope that if the less/fewer decision was confusing for you, that it’s now clear.

If you have grammar topics you’d like to see covered, please leave a comment or e-mail me.

Lisa Jackson is an editor, writer, and chocolate lover. She’s addicted to Sudoku, cafés, and words. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has a blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can, too! © Lisa J. Jackson, 2011

11 thoughts on “Grammar-ease – Less versus fewer

  1. Wow! This is the first thing I read today—GREAT!

    Excellent! Fantastic!
    Oh! DId I mention I like it.

    Jaye

  2. A useful explanation; I’m always interested in new ways of explaining grammar; in so many cases, it’s something you “just know” but can’t quite find the official explanation. Rather like being unable to give directions to a place you’ve driven to every day for years.

    I’ve always just differentiated as singular and plural: “Less” for singular, “fewer” for plural. “Less snow fell. Fewer snowflakes hit the ground.”

    But the count/not count explanation is easy to remember.

  3. Less is also commonly used with count nouns. Lots of people don’t like it, but its widespread and deliberate among skilled users of English, so its not just an error.

  4. Pingback: Grammar-ease: Using ‘Many’ and ‘Much’ | Live to Write – Write to Live

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