Fewer vs. Less
People are often confused by whether to use “fewer” versus “less” when trying to describe the relative amounts or degrees of things. Here’s a brief explanation.
“Fewer” should be used when the things you are describing are able to be counted. “Less” is used when is describes an adjective or when it is referring to something that is not countable; it is used to describe abstract or imprecise things like time, speed, quality, etc. For example,
Harry’s bike’s top speed is less than Meredith’s bike’s top speed.
Harry’s bike has fewer speeds than Meredith’s bike has.
Speed, when not quantified, is not a countable thing. Speeds, however, as in the gears on a bike, are able to be counted, so “fewer” is appropriate in the second sentence.
When Elizabeth complained that she had less candy than Frank had, he gave her some of his.
When Elizabeth complained that she had fewer jelly beans than Frank had, he gave her some of his.
Candy, as an isolated object, it not countable; jelly beans are.
I bet I slept for less time than you did last night.
I bet I slept fewer hours than you did last night.
I bet you woke up fewer times last night than I did.
Time is an abstract thing here, similar to the example of speed above, whereas times, as in events or episodes, are not abstract things. Hours, too, are distinct, countable units.
John is less outgoing than Jim.
John has fewer sociable characteristics than Jim.
“Less” is used in the first sentence here because it is describing an adjective, “outgoing,” and because one’s degree of outgoingness cannot be counted. Characteristics, on the other hand, are certainly countable.
A good rule of thumb, while certainly not hard and fast, is to look at what you’re referring to; if it’s singular, use “less;” if it’s plural, use “fewer.”
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