Less Versus Fewer
Today's topic is "less" versus "fewer."
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There are exceptions to these rules; for example, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance (2, 3). For example, you could say, “That wedding reception lasted less than two hours. I hope they paid the band less than $400.” So keep in mind that time, money, and distance are different, but if you stick with the quick and dirty tip that less is for mass nouns and fewer is for count nouns, you'll be right most of the time.
There are two ways that I remember when to use less and when to use fewer.
First, I think of the classic example of the grocery store express lane. Most of the signs for these lanes read, “10 items or less,” and that's just wrong. The signs should read, “10 items or fewer,” because items are individual, countable things. Between hearing people complain about the signs and seeing the signs every week or so, it sticks in my head that it should be fewer items. And when I stand in line and count the 15 items that belong to the person in front of me in the 10-items-or-fewer lane, I'm strongly reinforcing the idea that items are countable.
Second, I have a memory trick. I think of Aardvark sitting by a lake. He's fishing. The water is low in the lake this year, so there is less water in the lake. Less and lake both begin with the letter l. There is less water in the lake. Squiggly is worried about dinner. Aardvark usually catches four fish, but what if there are only three? “We'll have fewer fish for dinner,” Squiggly thinks to himself fretfully. Fewer and fish both start with the letter f, and Squiggly is counting fish in his head. We'll have fewer fish for dinner.
[Added June 3, 2013] Dallas DeLuca suggested the following memory trick:
The words "less" and "mass" both have four letters, and the words "fewer" and "count" both have five letters.
- Lynch, J. "Fewer versus Less." The Lynch Guide to Grammar. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/f.html#fewer (accessed May 10, 2007).
- Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 295.
- few. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/few (accessed: May 10, 2007).
More or Less Sign image from Shutterstock