When do you use ‘fewer’ and when do you use ‘less’? This is a conundrum that has plagued some of the greatest minds for centuries …
Okay, not really, but it is one of those grammar rules that gets people in a pickle – especially because they don’t want to sound ignorant if they get it wrong.
The ‘Countable’ Rule
This is the advice you’re most likely to come across.
Use ‘fewer’ when the items are plural or can be counted.
- Fewer people read my blog since I changed the font to Comic Sans.
- Now I’ve adopted a dog, fewer cats come into my garden.
- Can you write a story in fewer than six sentences?
Use ‘less’ when the items don’t have a plural or can’t be counted.
- I would rather spend less time cooking and more time eating.
- ‘Less talking, more kissing,’ she said as she pulled him closer.
- The house was certainly less than perfect, but it would do.
However, there are exceptions!
Use ‘less’ when talking about numbers and units of measurement.
- If you were less than four feet tall, you couldn’t go on the fairground ride.
- There was less than ten minutes before the end of the exam.
- Unlike the other judges, she scored him less than ten.
Darn those pesky exceptions. Is there a simpler way to remember this rule? Well, possibly. Perhaps the following rule clicks with your brain better.
The ‘Singular Versus Plural’ Rule
An arguably better way to decide when to use ‘fewer’ and when to use ‘less’ is by considering whether the associated noun is plural or single. This is the framework the Chicago Manual of Style recommends.
And when you think about things this way, the ‘numbers and units of measurement’ exceptions above work – because we usually count these things as singular anyway.
- Four feet is not unreasonable for a height restriction.
- There is ten minutes remaining until the end of the exam.
- Six is a disappointing score.
- Ten thousand pounds is not enough for a deposit on a house.
- Twenty-five minutes is a good time for a 5km run.
- 200g of chocolate is needed for the recipe.
Though feet, minutes, score points, pounds, kilometres and grams are all countable, we still treat them as singular entities in certain contexts.
So when you apply the ‘singular vs plural’ rule, there are no annoying exceptions:
- I have less fruit than you. (Not countable.)
- Give him less medicine. (Not countable.)
- I have less than ten thousand pounds in the bank. (Countable.)
- There is less than five minutes until the end of the exam. (Countable.)
- I have fewer apples than you. (Countable.)
- Give him fewer pills. (Countable.)
People who subscribe to these rules will criticize that sign at the supermarket. You know the one. And you know what they say: ‘It should be ten items or fewer – not less.’
So … are they right? Or perhaps the better question is …
Does It Even Matter?
After all that, I want to propose the notion that this rule isn’t one to get your knickers in a twist over.
As with many grammar ‘rules’ (like the rules around commas), it seems these rules are not rules at all. In fact, the rules outlined above seemed to have originated in 1770 when the grammarian Robert Baker expressed them as a personal preference. Somehow, over time, this preference solidified in people’s minds as an indisputable rule.
As well as that, linguists say that using less with some countable nouns (‘Ten items or less’) is natural and that using fewer in some cases can sound pretty odd, and not something that rolls off the tongue.
Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage has pretty much the same stance:
If you are a native speaker, your use of less and fewer can reliably be guided by your ear.
So whether you’re a writer or an editor, I recommend not getting too hung up on this particular grammar issue. Go with what sounds right, in the context of the writing. And if you’re still not sure, follow one of the rules outlined above to appease the inevitable pedants!
If you want to know which grammar guides are worth reading and which ones you should ditch, take a look at this post: Why Most Grammar Guides Suck (and Where to Get Answers Instead).