Grammar advice: less or fewer?

Grammar advice: less or fewer?

Less or fewer mistakes… Let’s explore the differences between these confusing terms and when to use each!

It’s pretty easy to confuse less and fewer. This is understandable, as they both represent the opposite of the comparative adjective more… Which we always know when to use as it means either a greater number or greater amount. When it comes to using less or fewer, things are less obvious (pun intended). In this quick guide, we’ll do our best to provide some grammar advice and untangle this mystery once and for all. Hint — it might have something to do with countable vs. uncountable nouns!

When should I use “less”?

Use the term “less” when you’re writing about a quantity or amount of something being measured (not counted).

Some examples of this include:

  • Less time
  • Less effort
  • Less work
  • Less hassle
  • Less enjoyable

Can you spot a similarity between all these examples? None of the things we are measuring can be broken down into discrete units. You can’t have a set number of ‘effort’ or ‘hassle’ for instance. We describe these things in terms of quantities. The importance of this becomes clear when we take a look at when we should use fewer

When should I use “fewer”?

Use “fewer” when you’re writing about a number of something being counted.

Some examples of this include:

  • Fewer options
  • Fewer people
  • Fewer appearances
  • Fewer instances
  • Fewer pairs of shoes

Now, can you spot a similarity between all these examples? All these things can be break into discrete units. We can have a number of options, each person is a ‘single unit’, you can count shoes, and we can have a specific number of both instances and appearances. We can have ‘less’ liquid as a measurement, but we cannot have less people. They can’t be broken up in the same way — we have more or fewer than a specific number, or just a specific number! 

Still, struggling? A great way to test whether a noun is uncountable or not is to make a plural out of it. If you can make a plural out of it (e.g. one instance turns into many instances, one shoe turns into two shoes), then it is countable. If you can’t (e.g. hassles, enjoyables), then it is uncountable.

A pair of blue shoes: fewer shoes!

Ambiguities and exceptions to the rule

Sometimes we have an idea whether we should use less or fewer but it’s still hard to work out which rule it technically adheres to…

Money

For example, we can break money down into units. This is how we use it in everyday life! However, we don’t tend to think of it as an aggregate of units, we think of it as a quantity of money — a bulk quantity. It makes more sense to use less when discussing money rather than fewer. 

See for yourself. Which sounds better?

  • a) I have less than eight pounds left in my purse.
  • b) I have fewer than eight pounds left in my purse.

It’s a) right? This is the reader-friendly answer that sounds best in writing, so 

Time

We used ‘Less time’ as one of our less examples. But you might be thinking, don’t we count time in second, minute, and hour units? If so, you’re certainly on to something. Something that makes the issue of time particularly confusing!

In general, we use less to discuss time when we are writing statements like “I have been a babysitter for less than two years”. However, we might occasionally switch to fewer when writing statements like “I wish she spent fewer hours on the art piece”. 

Weight

Weight can be even more confusing. Though certain weights are measured in a countable way, we still use less in statements like “The rest of the flour was less than 100 grams”. It is generally considered awkward to use fewer in statements like this one.

Old fashioned kitchen scales. Would you use less or fewer when discussing weight?

Statistics and percentages

Working out when to use less and fewer in statistics can be tricky, too. An easy way to decide which to use is to ask whether the number, amount, or percentage of something is countable. If it is, then you can use fewer. If it isn’t, then you can use less.

For example, “Fewer than nine per cent of women have blue eyes”.

Also, “I have spent less than fifty per cent of my workweek on this project”.

While blue eyes are countable, you can’t enumrate a workweek. 

Summary

Though there are some handy tricks that you can use to figure out when you should use less and fewer — don’t worry if there isn’t always a clear answer! As we’ve seen, there are some ambiguities around the usage of these terms.

Sometimes we need to use our intuition and listen to what sounds best. Good luck implementing these tips in your writing, you can do it! And don’t forget, you can always get in touch with the Zipcopi team for editing expertise and copywriting services. We have lots more grammar advice on our blog, too.