'Fewer' or 'Less'?

Is it ‘Fewer’ or ‘Less’?

Knowing which term to use is one of those conundrums we all face when we’re working with words.

Do I say ‘fewer vases’ or ‘less vases’?

'Fewer' or 'Less'?

In general conversation, we’d probably say ‘less’ because ‘fewer’ sounds a bit too formal. But in more formal situations, such as a written contract, we need to know which is the correct form to use.

So, the simple way to remember which to use is to ask yourself, ‘Can I count the item?’

Countable or uncountable?

If you can count the items you are talking about, it’s what is called a ‘countable’ noun. Countable nouns always use ‘fewer’.

If you can’t count the items, they’re called ‘uncountable’ nouns, so you use the word ‘less’.

Let’s look at some examples:

Which is correct?

  • I have fewer stationery now than I had at the start of the year.

or

  • I have less stationery now than I had at the start of the year

Can you count ‘stationery’?

Try it: One stationery, two stationery, three … Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

So, the correct way to say this is: I have LESS stationery now than I had at the start of the year.

Let’s try the same sentence but change the word ‘stationary’ to ‘pens’.

Which is correct?

  • I have fewer pens now than I had at the start of the year.

or

  • I have less pens now than I had at the start of the year.

This is harder, because ‘less’ feels like it’s the right answer. But if you ask yourself ‘Can you count pens?’ you’ll see you can: One pen, two pens…

Yep, pens is a ‘countable’ noun, so you can use ‘fewer’. I have FEWER pens now than I had at the start of the year.

Other tips

Another way to tell if you use fewer or less is to decide if the noun you are describing is singular (there is just one item or category of items being discussed) or plural (you’re talking about multiple units of the item).

If it’s singular, you use ‘less’ and if it’s plural, you use ‘fewer’.

Supermarkets are grammatically wrong…but actually sound right

Another way to work out which word to use, is to remember that those registers at the supermarket which have ’15 items or less’ are GRAMMATICALLY INCORRECT.

Of course, we use ‘less’ in this context, as we’re all used to this expression. We’d never change these signs; they’d look odd with ’15 items of fewer’, wouldn’t they?

But they are grammatically incorrect. So, if you can remember that, you can remember which word to use in other examples.

Measurements

Of course, English being the complex language that it is, there are exceptions to this rule when the quantity mentioned is considered a single entity.

This is why we can say  ‘Entries must be 50 words or less’ and ‘Stopping distance must be 10 metres or less’.

Final catch-all

Sometimes, you don’t have the time or energy to sit down and work out which form to use.

In that case, my motto is always:

‘When in doubt, rewrite the sentence so that the problem disappears.’

For example, ‘I don’t have as many pens now as I had at the start of the year’ completely removes the problem. And will probably result in fewer headaches for all concerned.

Click here to see the cheat sheet that will help you remember.

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