Have you ever seen a grocery store checkout sign that read “10 items or less” and been wildly annoyed? If so, you’re not alone.
Less and fewer are both comparative adjectives that indicate smaller numbers, amounts, or degrees. But deciding when to use each isn’t always straightforward. Here’s some help.
What is the Difference Between Fewer and Less?
There is an old rule that fewer should be used with countable plural nouns and less with mass uncountable nouns. However, this rule has been largely disregarded in recent times. For example, a supermarket sign inviting shoppers to use the express lane with 10 items or less is grammatically incorrect.
Instead, the adjectives less and fewer can be interchanged in many situations, depending on whether they refer to countable or mass nouns. However, it is essential to know which one you are using in order to avoid confusing your readers.
If you are unsure, you can always consult a style guide to see if it has any preference on the matter. Alternatively, you can simply follow your instincts and go with the word that seems most natural to you. This way, you can avoid making embarrassing mistakes like the one described in this article. Enjoy your grammatical journey! And don’t forget to check out our grammar blogs for more useful tips and tricks.
When to Use Fewer
Fewer is used with countable nouns and to modify units of time, money, measurement, and other general statistics. It can also be used for certain specific constructions: “five items or less,” and “25 words or less.”
Uncountable nouns, such as love, water, and information, cannot take fewer because they don’t have distinct parts that can be counted. However, many people use less to describe uncountable nouns, and this usage is acceptable in both formal and informal writing.
You’ve probably seen the sign at your local grocery store that says “Express Lane — 10 Items or Less.” Although this is an accurate statement in terms of how many items you can purchase, it violates the grammar rule that you should only use less with countable nouns. This is an example of a situation where you should use fewer rather than less. Fewer is more appropriate because the number of items is quantifiable. This makes it an easier choice than using less, which would be more difficult to quantify.
When to Use Less
The general rule is that if you are talking about a number or a countable noun, use less. This includes things like cookies, students, and vehicles, as well as numbers that denote measurements like time, money, and weight (less than four days, less than 12 miles).
Less should also be used for uncountable nouns that can’t be quantified or made into a plural: love, flour, water, and the faith of a grunge rocker. In these cases, you can simply rely on your own intuition.
But don’t feel constrained by these guidelines! There are exceptions to every rule, and your instinct might be off if you are writing something formal that adheres to style guides. For example, a style guide might prefer ‘fewer’ for statistics and fractions. This preference probably stems from a single 18th century text, Robert Baker’s Remarks on the English Language. It’s a personal preference that has since been adopted by a century’s worth of usage boffins.
When to Use More
Less is a comparative adjective that describes a smaller amount of something. It can be used with countable nouns, such as ingredients, dollars, people, and puppies, as well as with uncountable nouns like time, distance, and love. It’s best to avoid using it with mass nouns (people, tornadoes, jars) or with things that aren’t countable, such as water, air, money, and honesty.
Some pedants (like the potato thrower in No Country for Old Men) argue that less should be used only with countable nouns, but this isn’t a widely accepted rule. Even the venerable Strunk and White’s received rules on less and fewer don’t mention this specific case.
Generally, you can use more with almost any noun if it indicates an increase in quantity. Just remember that it’s usually used in comparison with something else – more of something is always better than less of it. You can also use adverbs such as a little, a lot, a bit, far, and much in front of more to further clarify its meaning.