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“Fewer” vs. “Less”

Nine Items or Fewer

A couple of adjectives cause many writers a lot of trouble: less vs. fewer. Let’s straighten out the problems.

Write with fewer lesses.

Many writers confuse fewer and less, usually using less when they mean fewer. Let’s review the differences between these words so that you can use each with precision.

Less vs. Fewer, Singular or Plural Nouns

Notice that fewer and less are adjectives. Necessarily, they modify nouns. Right off the bat, we can identify a key difference between the two words: The word less modifies singular nouns, while fewer modifies plural nouns.

Let’s look at examples of each adjective when they modify tangible nouns, stuff you can pick up and see:

Less Singular Noun Sentence
less salt His doctor advised him to use less salt.
less milk Also, he should drink less milk.
less food Overall, he should eat less food.
Fewer Plural Noun Sentence
fewer packets of salt He should ask for fewer packets of salt.
fewer glasses of milk He should drink fewer glasses of milk.
fewer items of food He bought fewer than nine items of food.

 

Of course, the nouns modified by fewer and less can be abstractions or other intangibles, stuff you can’t pick up and see. Again, follow the rule of modifying singular nouns with less and plural nouns with fewer:

Less Singular Noun Sentence
less alcohol These days, people consume less alcohol.
less whispering The teacher urged less whispering.
less discovery The defendant wanted less discovery.
Fewer Plural Noun Sentence
fewer bottles of wine People now order fewer bottles of wine.
fewer whispers The teacher asked for fewer whispers.
fewer documents The defendant wanted to produce fewer documents.

 

Less vs. Fewer, Count Nouns

But the singular-plural distinction goes only so far. I could not, for example, say, I should eat less cookie. So the singular noun has some special trait prompting its need for less. As a rule, it will describe something that cannot be easily counted. Thus, the singular nouns milk, medicine, and asphalt are very tangible and capable of some sort of measurement, but the nouns themselves are not susceptible to any kind of tally. So you would want to drink less milk, take less medicine, and purchase less asphalt.

But if you take these nouns and identify units of measurements, then you’ll need to turn to fewer when you want to drink fewer ounces of milk, take fewer pills, and purchase fewer tons of asphalt.

Think of the noun modified as being one of two types: (1) either you can count them or (2) or you can’t, because the noun is naming an amount or chunk of something.

Less vs. Fewer, Express Check-Out Lines

Think of a grocery cart (one of those with only three wheels working). When you look in other people’s shopping carts, it looks as if they have a big blob of food in there. But actually they have separate items—items you can count . . . items you do count in the express check-out lane.

Most grocery stores botch it in their express-lane signs when they say, Fifteen Items or Less. In my experience, only Safeway gets it right: Fifteen Items or Fewer. You can—and do—count the 25 items the jerk in front of you has in his basket as he checks out in the express lane. He doesn’t have less than fifteen items. He is supposed to have fewer than fifteen items.

Complain to your store manager and point out how the grocery store is further eroding the knowledge of grammar in America. And while you’re at it, urge the manager first to edit and second to enforce the store’s fifteen-items-or-fewer rule.

When the noun is uncountable, chances are it’s an amount or chunk of something, or just a bunch of stuff you never think of counting and perhaps couldn’t count if you tried: less salt, less sand, less ambiguity. But: fewer grains of salt, fewer grains of sand, fewer ambiguities.

So remember: Use less for singular nouns that are kind of chunky and fewer for plural nouns naming things you can count.

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