Less vs. fewer?

If you cannot count the quantity of something, use the word “less.” If you can count the individual units, use “fewer.” The only exception to this rule is money, time, distance, or other units of measurement, where “less” emphasizes a quantity over a number.

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What is the difference between fewer vs. less?

We use the words less and fewer to indicate a decreased amount of something in comparison to another, but we don’t use these terms interchangeably. According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, the word “less” emphasizes the appearance of quantity or degree, while the word “fewer” emphasizes a number. This makes sense because “less” is a comparative form of “little” and “fewer” is a comparative form of “few.” 

Using Garner’s perspective, it’s easy to see how the terms are inherently different. We use the word “little” to describe an infinite amount of sizes or appearances, but “few” generally denotes a specific number like “a couple,” “a dozen,” or even “some.” For example, 

“He weighs less than you!” vs. “He has fewer muscles than you.”

The Associated Press Stylebook expands on these differences by explaining how we should use “fewer” for individual items and “less” for a bulk quantity (“Fewer, less” 106). But this is also where learning less vs. fewer is very complicated. According to Lexico, the proper usage of “less” generally describes a quantity under 10,000, while “fewer” describes individual units with quantities that are less than ten. 

Simple grammar rules for fewer vs. less

The AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manuel of Style, Lexico, and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary all agree that the correct use of less vs. fewer depends on the following simple rules: 

  1. Use “less” for singular mass nouns (uncountable nouns), including bulk quantities that involve units of measurement and time (e.g., money, distances, fractions, percentages, minutes, etc.). 
  2. Use “fewer” for individual items and countable plural nouns.

When to use “fewer” in a sentence?

As mentioned before, we use “fewer” for sets of individual items or plural count nouns. A countable plural noun references a specific quantity of people, places, or things, such as “grocery stores” or “coupons.” For example,

“We have fewer grocery stores.” 
“I used fewer coupons in March.” 

When to use “less” in a sentence?

We use the word “less” with singular mass nouns, which often involve noncount nouns. A noncount or mass noun generally represents a large size or bulk quantity of something, but it is not an approximate quantity in context. For example, 

“There’s less stress in the supermarket.”
“We have less time to shop.” 

Exceptions for fewer vs. less

While terms like “money,” “space,” or “distance” are noncount nouns, we can still use “less” because they represent a bulk quantity of measurement units. For example,

“We have less than five dollars.” 
“We have less than two hours.” 
“The destination is less than 50 miles away.” 

Perhaps the most notorious example is the one found in your local supermarket. During your next visit to the store, look at the sign above the express lanes, and see if it reads “10 items or less.” Do you think the store signs are incorrect? 

If we use strict English grammar, the sign should read “10 items or fewer” because the items are countable. However, since there are several exceptions for phrases concerning bulk quantities, most people let this rule slide. 

Did you know?: Up until the 18th century, native speakers paired the word “less” with countable nouns. In fact, the oldest use of “less” describes a countable noun in a quote provided by Alfred the Great in 888 ACE. It wasn’t until grammarian Robert Baker began advocating rules for fewer vs. less, that English dictionaries followed suit.  

What does fewer mean?

Fewer is the comparative form of the word few, which means ‘a small amount’ or ‘number’ of something. We use the comparative fewer to describe how small an amount is in comparison to another known number. For example,

“We have fewer people logging into Zoom than usual.”  
“They have fewer than twenty people in the building.” 

Synonyms of fewer:

Countable, limited.

Antonyms of fewer:

Countless, innumerable, many, numerous, several.

What does less mean?

The term less describes a smaller amount of something in comparison to a different amount. We can use “less” as an adjective, adverb, noun, determiner, and pronoun, but regardless of the form, the amount of “less” should represent an uncountable or unknown number (i.e., a mass noun). 

For example,

“We have less time to spare.”
“She makes less money per year.” 
“There is less space than I remember.” 

It’s more common to see the word “less” as an adjective, where it is a comparative form of “little.” In this sense, we use “less” to say “there is little,” “there’s no more than,” or “this is smaller than…” 

“We have less than ten minutes.”
“Stealing isn’t murder, but it’s no less a crime.”
“There is less sunshine than normal.” 

The adverb form of less is also a comparative form of “little,” but only in the sense that “little” conveys the meaning of “slightly smaller.” In this case, the adverb less means “to a smaller degree.” 

“Every year, we have less and less rainfall.”
“The situation is less than ideal.”  

The prepositional form of less is unique because it indicates a subtraction. In this case, the word ‘less’ conveys the meaning of “minus” with mathematics. 

“Six is four less than ten.”

Synonyms of less:

Little, minute, small, minus, wanting. 

Antonyms of less:

As well as, greater, including, more. 

How to use fewer vs. less in a sentence?

Learning how to use fewer vs. less can feel daunting, but it’s easier to tackle if we break-down the two main rules through sentence examples. 

Emphasizing quantities vs. numbers

We use the word “less” to emphasize a quantity and “fewer” to emphasize a number. For example,

“We get less sunshine in Oregon than Southern California.” 

For this example, the word “less” is modifying the noncount noun “sunshine,” which is, for all intents and purposes, an uncountable or immeasurable unit. The noun “sunshine” is appropriate because the word “less” emphasizes the amount of sunshine in Oregon in comparison to Southern California. 

If we write, “Southern California receives fewer than 5 inches of rainfall per year,” then we’re emphasizing a number instead of a quantity. 

Less for noncount nouns, fewer for count nouns

As a general rule, the word “less” modifies singular noncount nouns (uncountable things), and “fewer” modifies plural count nouns (countable things). The word salt, for instance, is a plural noncount noun, so we use this word with the term “less.” For example,

“Let’s use less salt this time.”

If you use the plural singular noun “salt containers,” however, the word “fewer” is grammatically correct: 

“Let’s use fewer salt containers this time.”

Test Yourself!

The English Language is complex, but the best way to improve is to practice. See how far you’ve come by answering the following multiple-choice questions for “fewer” vs. “less.” 

  1. The correct usage of “fewer” does not involve _____________.
    1. Individual items 
    2. Countable nouns 
    3. Plural nouns
    4. Singular nouns
  2. We can use the plural form of the noun “cat” with _____________.
    1. Less
    2. Fewer
    3. Less and fewer
  3. “There are _____________ people in the checkout line.” 
    1. Less people
    2. Fewer people
    3. A or B
  4. “The lake has _____________ water than usual.” 
    1. Less water
    2. Fewer water
    3. A or B
  5. “The poll featured _____________ than a thousand voters.”
    1. Fewer than
    2. Less than
    3. A or B
  6. “The city noticed _____________ cars on the road this year.”
    1. Less cars
    2. Fewer cars
    3. A or B
  7. “The amount of money provided is _____________ than we expected.” 
    1. Answer
    2. Less than
    3. A or B

Answers

  1. D
  2. B
  3. B
  4. A
  5. B
  6. B
  7. B

Sources

  1. Few.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  2. “Fewer, less.” The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2017, The Associated Press, July 2017, pp. 106. 
  3. Fewer; less.” Garner’s Modern English Usage, Fourth Ed., Oxford University Press, 2016. 
  4. Less.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  5. Old-School Grammar.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  6. Usage and Grammar.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, The Chicago Manual of Style, 2017.