Language Rules

Definately Fixing Alot Of Americas Grammar 1 Word At A Thyme

Fewer vs. Less

with 13 comments

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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Written by benferguson

2006 Sep 8 at 10:12

Posted in grammar

13 Responses

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  1. ….perfect…… thanks, Rod

    Rod E. Smith, MSMFT

    2006 Sep 10 at 19:56

  2. For the past thousand years, “less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted.”

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003775.html

    madbandril

    2007 Feb 7 at 12:29

  3. I was always under the impression that in supermarkets it should be “10 items or fewer” rather than “10 items or less”. Does that work with this rule?

    Amanda Nicholls

    2007 Jun 15 at 04:34

  4. I need one with both fewer and less in a sentence.please?

    anna

    2008 Jan 22 at 18:53

  5. Anna,

    There’s a good example above: John is less outgoing than Jim, but Jim has fewer social characteristics than John. Outgoingness is not countable, whereas one’s individual characteristics are.

    nosugrefneb

    2008 Mar 11 at 08:35

  6. got a question.
    The book I have has a sentence using less and I am not sure if it is grammatically correct.

    “I have two less children than you.”

    I thought “less” should be “fewer” Am I wrong?

    Cho

    2009 Jan 21 at 00:53

  7. Yep, you’re exactly right, Cho.

    nosugrefneb

    2009 Jan 21 at 08:36

  8. go cho your my how i love you and yes you are corret :):):)

    googcho420

    2009 Oct 23 at 09:51

  9. I have fewer cherries than rice.
    Cherries are countable.
    Rice is uncountable
    is it ok to use ‘fewer’ to compare?

    Hilda

    2010 Apr 28 at 23:27

  10. A comparison should not be made between countable and uncountable things directly, meaning that you could only say something like “the cherries weigh less than the rice”, or “there are fewer cherries than grains of rice”.

    Matt Brady

    2010 Jun 17 at 11:31

  11. The wonderful language of English. I wonder if I can have less than 10 items? Should I choose a number fewer than 10 or less than 10? Do I have fewer than ten dollars in my wallet or less than ten dollars in my wallet? Does a person take fewer steps to get to his destination or less steps? Is it less than a mile to hell or fewer than a mile to heaven?

    What do you think?

    Tam

    2010 Aug 2 at 10:01

  12. Tam, you can have fewer than 10 items. You can count items (it has an”s” at the end), so the correct form is fewer. It’s less than a mile to hell, and a heck of lot longer than a mile to Heaven! You’ve got me on that one. You can count miles, but it doesn’t “sound right” to say “fewer than a mile.”

    What I believe is going on is that we have an elliptical construction: “It’s less [distance] than a mile to hell.” We don’t count “distance.”

    Good point Tam!

    Jose M. Blanco

    2010 Aug 5 at 17:12

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