Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Fewer or less?

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In supermarkets, sellers periodically change p...
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Fewer’ refers to separate items that can be counted. For example, items of shopping in a basket.

Less’ refers to bulk or quantity: stuff that can’t be counted.

For example:

Less shopping, fewer items

Less bread, fewer slices

Less concrete, fewer paving slabs

Segments or fractions

A segment such as a half or a quarter should be seen as a single quantity, and therefore, the following are correct (grammatically, that is, I don’t know the statistics):

Less than a quarter of the population likes going to the opera.

Less than a third of the cake has been eaten.

Less than half of  the town’s pensioners live alone.

Money

When talking about money, amounts such as £50 should be seen as a single quantity of money, and therefore ‘less than £50’ is correct, for example:

The supermarket is offering customers the chance to talk to friends and family via their computers for an upfront cost of less than £20.

Measured amounts

A measured amount of something should be seen as a single quantity, for example:

The pool needs less than 30 gallons of water to top it up.

Time

When talking about time, for example, weeks, years or minutes, it is acceptable to use ‘less’ if you feel more comfortable doing so in your writing, for example:

I’ll be there in less than two hours.

It’ll take no less than five years to complete.

Just think about your audience and the overall tone of what you are writing. ‘No fewer than five years’ can sound a bit overly posh, depending on the circumstances.

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6 Responses

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  1. How’s this: “People in the UK will be buying less Cadbury chocolate now that the company is foreign-owned”?

    The odd thing about the fewer/less problem is it’s in the negative direction only; in the other direction, “more” works for either countable objects or abstractions. English is lovably weird.

    Michael Farrell

    23/01/2010 at 3:19 pm

    • I have never thought about the contrast with ‘more’. Very interesting. Thanks for that.

      Deborah

      23/01/2010 at 4:00 pm

  2. Ripped from today’s headlines: “Heidi Montag’s debut album ‘Superficial’ has reportedly sold fewer than 1,000 copies.” (SplashNewsOnline)

    Michael Farrell

    24/01/2010 at 7:00 am

    • Fewer sales, less money…

      Thanks for that example.

      Deborah

      24/01/2010 at 8:25 am

  3. Checkout-queue problem solved: “No more than 15 items.”

    Michael Farrell

    25/02/2010 at 4:06 pm

  4. It seems that some authorities are stricter about using ‘less’ rather than ‘fewer’ when talking about periods of time. Here’s the After Deadline column in The New York Times on ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ and its take on the slightly thorny issue of which to use when referring to time (specific references to time are in bold):

    The basic rule for precise use of “less” and “fewer” is simple (though we slip often). Use “fewer” with countable, individual things, and “less” with uncountable amounts, volumes, etc. So: “I should drink less coffee,” but “I should eat fewer doughnuts.”

    But it’s not as simple as plural (fewer) vs. singular (less). Sometimes “less” is correct even with a plural noun. The Times’s stylebook says this:

    Also use less with a number that describes a quantity considered as a single bulk amount: The police recovered less than $1,500; It happened less than five years ago; The recipe calls for less than two cups of sugar.

    We slipped on this point two days in a row recently:

    Jon M. Chu’s “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never’’ is billed as a concert documentary, but fewer than half of its 105 minutes are devoted to Mr. Bieber onstage.
    The point was not to enumerate the number of individual minutes, but to describe the extent or span of time. Make it “less than half of its 105 minutes is …”

    New York State education officials released a new set of graduation statistics on Monday that show less than half of students in the state are leaving high school prepared for college and well-paying careers.
    As the verb shows, the construction here expresses a plural number, not an amount; so use “fewer,” not “less.”

    And an earlier entry in the same paper’s column:

    Ms. Palin, you will recall, exploded into the national consciousness as a relatively inexperienced and unformed politician, a small-town mayor who had served fewer than two years as Alaska’s governor. Her chief message, up to that point, had been about reform and good government.

    “Fewer” than two would be one. We really intended to describe an extent of time, not a number of years, so we should say “less than two years.”

    Deborah

    08/03/2011 at 4:51 pm


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