Grammar Rules: Fewer or Less

grammar rules fewer or lessIt’s a battle between words: fewer or less. Are they interchangeable? Do these words have different meanings? How can we use them correctly?

Many people don’t realize that these two words do not share the same meaning and therefore cannot be used interchangeably. As a result, both fewer and less are often used incorrectly.

The difference may be subtle but it’s significant and remarkably easy to remember. Let’s see what Dictionary.com has to say about these two words:

fewer: adjective 1. of a smaller number: fewer words and more action.

less: adjective 1. smaller in size, amount, degree, etc.; not so large, great, or much: less money; less speed.


The grammar rules are clear; let me break them down for you.

Fewer or Less? Which is Correct?

Fewer and less respectively refer to a number of items or an amount of something. The easiest way to remember which of these adjectives to use in a given situation is this:

Fewer should be used when the items in question can be counted.

She has fewer books than her brother.

Less is used when the amount of something cannot be counted.

She has less interest in reading than her brother does.

Note that books can be counted item by item. However, interest is not a thing that can be counted, though we can discuss how much of it someone has.

The basic difference here is countability. Use fewer for countable nouns like individuals, cars, and pens. Use less for uncountable nouns such as love, time, and interest. Do note, however, that there are some sticky spots to watch out for when determining whether you should use fewer or less. For example, you might need less paper but you will need fewer sheets of paper.

Fewer or Less

Now you know how to tell the difference.

Do you have questions about correctly using fewer or less or any other word pairs? Maybe you have something to add to this linguistic look at tricky adjectives. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment and let’s discuss.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

36 Responses to “Grammar Rules: Fewer or Less”

  1. Ah, you tackle yet another tricky topic for a lot of people. Great post! I really love your site. Though I was an English major in college and still do a lot of writing both professionally and personally, it’s so great to have these little refreshers when I visit your site. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I’m sure a ton of people really appreciate it!
    .-= Positively Present´s last blog ..why i need other people to change myself =-.

    • That’s why I post these little refreshers. We can all use them! I’m always double-checking and looking up the rules. It’s a good practice. Of course, I might turn around and break those rules…

  2. Kelvin Kao says:

    Haha, oh yes, fewer and less. I know the difference for the most part, but sometimes it actually feels weird to use “fewer” correctly when most people just use “less” for everything. I think the confusion comes from the fact that we only have one word for “more”, and from the phrase “more or less”, we sort of gather that the opposite of “more” is “less” and totally forgot about “fewer”.

    The only problem with these two words is when there are numbers associated. We say “fewer people” and we say “less than three”. So do we say “fewer than three people” or “less than three people”? Similarly, we say “less coffee” and “fewer cups”. Do we say “fewer than three cups of coffee” or “less than three cups of coffee”?

    I think you should write about “jealous” and “envious” sometime. =)

    • Kelvin, you make a very astute observation regarding “more or less.” I hadn’t thought of that!

      I believe that the correct way would actually be “less people” and “fewer persons,” but I’m not 100% sure. As for “less than three,” it might be “fewer than three,” depending on what is being counted. Me? I would say “less than three people” and “fewer than three persons.” That’s my take on this. For the coffee – it would be “fewer than three cups of coffee” because the cups are being counted, not the coffee (the cups just happen to contain coffee).

      Jealous and envious… hmm, I’ll have to think about that. Hehehe.

      • michael groves says:

        i have taught a journaling and creative writing group
        here in frederick, md for the (last) four years, and
        i’ve gotten by on “if it sounds good, it is good!”
        mike

  3. clella camp says:

    I, too, taught secondary English for years, but still need to check some of these words for proper usuage at times. Thank you for this post. Blessings Clella
    .-= clella camp´s last blog ..GOD BLESS AMERICA =-.

  4. J.D. Meier says:

    I like your precise distinction … “countability.”

    I also like the fact you asked which is correct. One of my teachers was a stickler on distinguishing between correct and right, where correct was accurate, while right was a moral term.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Likeability is a Skill =-.

  5. Danielle Ingram says:

    Seems so straight forward but in fact using the correct or incorrect words in particular places can really affect your writing and what people think of it when they read it, whether it be a formal letter or a novel.

  6. Marelisa says:

    I try to double-check grammar rules when writing my blog posts because the last thing I want to do is add to all the bad grammar that there is out there. The other day I used the word “funner” in a sentence when talking to my sister and she asked me whether “funner” is a proper word. I looked it up and apparently through common usage it has become acceptable. On the one hand,language needs to evolve, but on the other hand, I hope we don’t gradually destroy grammar rules through inadequate usage.

    • Perhaps the biggest challenge in grammar is the way language is constantly evolving. The good news is that it gives us wiggle room. The bad news is that it creates a lot of confusion.

  7. Jose M. Blanco says:

    Hmmm… The principle is correct, and the rule applies to most situations. However, we have constructions like

    Jenny walked less than two miles to school.
    Harry has less than three dollars in his wallet.
    Sarina lost less than five pounds on her diet.
    Edmund waited less than fifteen minutes at his lawyer’s office.

    These expressions would not raise any red flag in the ears of an educated speaker of English, yet they do not conform to the rules. The language is evolving.

    • Some would look at your examples and say that they show how poorly people grasp good grammar these days. Others would argue that language must evolve, and this is how that happens. I’m somewhere in the middle.

  8. Syrel says:

    Thank you for your article.

    I found it by looking up, “What happened to the word “fewer”? For years now, I’ve noticed TV commercials using the word “less” when “fewer” should be used. I’ve been out of school for decades and wondered if the rules had changed while I wasn’t looking.

    • Yes, I think this one is fading out of the English language. If you think about it, we don’t really need to differentiate between fewer and less to communicate effectively. Language is always evolving and words come and go.

  9. Constance says:

    Hi Melissa

    I’d always thought it goes like this less, lesser least so when making comparison, is it right to say… She added lesser salt to Mary’s soup than Susan’s?

    • No, you would not say “she added lesser salt than…” You would say “she added less salt.”

      Lesser means smaller, as in, “she committed a lesser crime than…”

      Your question probably warrants a much longer answer, but for a quick one, I would say that less means “a smaller amount” whereas lesser means “smaller.”

      Example: She added a smaller amount of salt (not “she added smaller salt”) and she committed a smaller crime (not “she committed a smaller amount crime”).

  10. RICH SATTANNI/AUTHOR says:

    THIS SEGMENT WAS VERY INFORMATIVE/THANX RICH SATTANNI/AUTHOR

  11. Bill Polm says:

    Thanks. I was an English major too and didn’t know that! That is a useful distinction. Great post.

    P.S. The blog is in the development stages. Not much there now. There will be soon, though!

    • Just a few years ago, I wasn’t aware of the difference either. I wrote this post when I learned about it, and ever since then, whenever I hear these words used incorrectly, a red flag goes up: grammar alert!

  12. Maryanne Khan says:

    Oh how I wish more folks could read this post! The distinction, as you explain, is clear and there’s no excuse for using the two interchangeably, although most offenders simply plaster ‘less’ into their speech and writing. Copywriters for commercials are particular offenders.

    Another one that gets me is the use of plural in a sentence like “not one of the politicians are telling the truth,” instead of “not one of the politicians IS telling the truth.”

    • Sometimes, I think it’s almost impossible to truly master ever detail in English grammar. We’re all learning, always learning. I’m chagrined when I see blatant mistakes in professional copy, but I also understand that everyone makes mistakes. I often find myself wondering whether the writer didn’t know the grammar rule or whether he or she made more of a one-time error. Interesting stuff.

      • Maryanne Khan says:

        Melissa,

        To my utter amazement, I’ve just found out that I’m dyslexic (after several university degrees and writing courses, published work and what have you) ! Spell-check is an utter quagmire because often, I can’t ‘see’ that I’ve transposed letters in a word and spell check glowers redly at me, to my great dismay.

        As far as learning grammar is concerned, it seems to becoming the domain of the adult literate, the writers and such, and yes, even they can make mistakes. However, after dealing with four kids going through university, I have certainly seen that they have not been taught the rules, let alone the nuances of usage.

        *sigh*

        • Maryanne Khan says:

          I owe you a ‘be’ . . . sheesh!

        • It amazes me that kids are not taught grammar in school. When I was in high school, my English teacher spent considerable time teaching us etiquette (this was supposed to be in preparation for prom). While what she taught was interesting and useful, I can’t justify spending precious time on social behavior in an English class that hasn’t yet memorized the parts of speech or learned how to differentiate between homophones. Also, I think kids should know grammar long before high school. It’s just one of the many symptoms of what’s wrong with our education system (here in the U.S.).

  13. Cheng Yew says:

    Well,i think less than 20 people and fewer than 20 people focus on different things as in—less than 20 people,perhaps the writer focuses on the amount of people however fewer than 20 people shows the writer put his focus on the plural form of a person..

  14. Lynn Fowler says:

    I have fortuitously stumbled upon your site, in my search for assistance in the most correct use of “fewer than” versus “less than.” Here is my question:

    Which is more correct?

    The agenda must be provided not less than 72 hours before the meeting.

    OR

    The agenda must be provided not fewer than 72 hours before the meeting.

    Thank you for your assistance and for this site – I’ve put it in the bookmarks of my web browser!

    Comment:

    I too lament the apparent demise of formal education in grammar in our educational system. In my own experience, now many years in the past, during the 6th grade we spent signicant time diagramming sentences, learning parts of speech, and etc. While it may seem no longer relevant or important, I can give a reason, completely apart from the need for grammatical “literacy” in the English language later in one’s educational process: learning a second language is much less confusing if, when the instructor refers to “nouns,” “verbs,” “subject” and “object” in the context of the second language grammar, one understands the meaning of those terms as they pertain to the grammar of one’s first language.
    Thanks again.

    • Anything dealing with time is an exception to the rule, so you can say either “fewer than” or “less than” with regards to hours, minutes, and other measurements of time. If you want to be super formal, you would say “fewer than 72 hours” but “less than 72 hours” is acceptable. Good luck!