Less Versus Fewer

You may have heard the traditional "countable" rule about less versus fewer, but there's also a better rule you may not have heard that covers some of the exceptions to the traditional rule.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #453
Less versus Fewer

10 Items or Less

Finally, the simple and ubiquitous grocery store signs that read 10 Items or Less aren’t the clear-cut abomination that many people believe them to be. 

Although Garner’s Modern American Usage says that 10 items or fewer is the correct choice, other reference books such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and The Cambridge Guide to English Usage note that the admonition that writers should not use less for countable items is relatively new, beginning as the personal opinion of one usage writer from the 1700s, and the Oxford English Dictionary has examples of less being used with countable items going back to nearly the dawn of printed English and continuing to this day. I find it impressive that the first citation of less being used with a countable noun in the OED comes from King Alfred the Great himself. He was the great promoter of English over Latin, and in the year 888, he wrote about less words.

See Also: Why Are British and American English Different?

Language researchers tend to believe that using less with some countable nouns is natural and that the restriction against doing so is constructed and forced. For example, Mark Liberman reported on the linguistics site Language Log that in real writing—both from Google News and the Web in general—instances of “N votes or less” far exceeded “N votes or fewer.”

Much Versus Many

Second, as with less and fewer, much is generally used for things you can’t count and many is used for things you can count, but it is equally acceptable at the grocery store to ask both How much can I bring through this line? Is this too much? and How many can I bring through this line?

To me, the “how much” questions sound more natural, which would imply that we think of our items on the conveyor belt as a single uncountable mass of groceries rather than countable items—but you can make an argument for either.

What I ask is not that you use 10 items or less in your own writing; it carries even more risk than using the one-less-banana construction. What I ask is that the next time you see a sign that reads 10 Items or Less, instead of getting upset about the sign, recognize that this isn’t a black-and-white issue and save your anger for something about which we can all agree: the people who go through that line with 40 items should be stopped.

See Also: "Much Thanks" or "Many Thanks"?

[Note: This is a significant update of an article that originally appeared May 11, 2007.] 

"Less" and "fewer" don't mean the same thing.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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