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||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.|
|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.|
He earned his degree in less than four years.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?
He earned his degree in fewer than four years.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.
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.
The statute requires our response in not fewer than 10 or more than 20 days.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).