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||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||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||alcohol||These days, people consume less alcohol.|
|less||whispering||The teacher urged less whispering.|
|less||discovery||The defendant wanted less discovery.|
|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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Fewer vs. Less -Time and Money
Less Money, Less Time
You’ll encounter a big exception to these less-singular and fewer-plural rules. Sometimes a plural noun is describing something that’s chunky—a singular amount. Consider time and money. You will often describe an amount of time with a plural noun, e.g., years. Here, the use of less is correct:
Here we are not counting years. We’re measuring an amount or chunk of time. He might have earned his degree in three years and eleven months. The expression fewer years would fail to describe three years and eleven months. What would we mean if we used fewer?
This must mean that he earned his degree in either three years, or two years, or just one year. Those are the only measurements that could possibly be fewer than four years. Increments between those yearly milestones are not within the meaning of fewer than four years. Thus, we’re not counting the years. Instead, we’re using a plural noun to name a singular amount of time. Use of less, therefore, is correct.
Money, too, is rather chunky. Here, the use of less is correct as well:
The court has jurisdiction of cases involving less than 10,000 dollars.
We’re not counting dollars. Instead, we’re pegging a single amount. So even though dollars is a plural noun, it actually states a chunk, an amount—a noun properly described by less.
If you are counting units of time, however, you should use fewer. In the following example, we are specifying exact numbers of days, not a chunk or set amount of time:
Thus, in a word, use less when you cannot count the noun modified. Use fewer when you can. Use less with singular nouns; fewer, with plural nouns. But if you’re using a plural noun to measure a chunk or amount of money or time, then you should use less (less than five years, less than 2,500 dollars).
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