The rule on using fewer and less is simple, yet many people still confuse them. Both words are the opposite of many but have different uses.
I’ll teach you when to use fewer vs. less with a few simple rules. Learn the grammar conventions for these determiners and the exceptions to the rules.
Fewer vs. Less—What’s the Difference?
Both fewer and less belong to the same category of English words called determiners. They also mean “a smaller amount,” but their modified words differ.
In the rules of grammar, fewer is associated with numbers or things that can be counted. It means “not as many.” For example, we can say “fewer houses” because “house” is a countable noun.
- There are fewer houses on Carnation Street than on Cornelia Street.
- Your work has fewer mistakes now.
Less refers to quantity among objects or ideas that cannot be counted but can be measured, when considering the traditional rule. It’s synonymous with “not as much.” For example, we say “less time” or “less hair.”
In a reference to time or a measure of time, less is the preferred term.
- I have less time to go out now that school has started.
- The chunk of time we have for the test is now less.
But it can also be applied to volume, as in with water.
- There’s less water in the glass now.
The difference between the two words is simple. But I know it’s hard to tell whether this type of noun is countable. For example, do we say, “fewer problems” or “less problems”? It’s hard to understand the definitive rule, and the correct answer may depend on the context in which “problem” is being used.
Another example is “fewer plastic” or “less plastic.” Plastic is usually uncountable, and the only way to make it countable is to group it.
- Corporations should use less plastic to prevent climate change from worsening.
- Consumers use fewer pieces of plastic when shopping.
Exceptions to the Rule
Despite the clear rule, many English speakers can still use less when referring to countable nouns. In fact, it’s more commonly used in terms that involve money, distance, time, and weight.
We use less with money because we see it as a bulk quantity rather than separate pieces or units.
- You’ll save less money if you pay for the quarterly plan instead of the annual plan.
- Sheila has less than thirty dollars left in her savings account.
Less is also the standard determiner for time. Even though time is countable in hours, minutes, and seconds, it’s still intangible.
- You have less than five minutes left to finish the quiz.
- I have less time for my hobbies because of my thesis paper.
It’s customary to use less for weight instead of fewer despite being countable.
- Her newborn son weighs less than 7.5 lbs.
- My upper body dumbbells weigh less than my lower body dumbbells.
When Did Less Replace Fewer?
Less did not necessarily replace fewer. The rule on less vs. fewer was first challenged in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and The Copyeditor’s Handbook. These reliable sources noted the exceptions for weight, time, money, and other concepts.
The authors of The Copyeditor’s Handbook stated that the strict rule is impractical because of these exceptions. Many idioms also use less for count nouns. Less is more is one famous example, and it sounds nicer than fewer is more.
They suggest that you don’t have to follow the ancient rule of less vs. fewer strictly. Instead of determining whether it’s an uncountable noun or not, consider the specificity or vagueness of the item’s quantity.
How Do You Use the Word Fewer in a Sentence?
Here are some examples of fewer in a sentence.
- Mr. Jones owned fewer houses after his company’s bankruptcy.
- The VIP tickets are fewer than the Upper Box tickets.
Fewer young Americans are qualified to serve, and even fewer want to. [ABC News]
Rescue workers transport a California resident in the wake of the 2021 wildfires. [Vox]
How to Use Less in a Sentence
Here are some examples of less in a sentence.
- Tammy has less than three days left to decide on her college program.
- Is it true that using less shampoo can prevent hair fall?
I have confidence in my ability to communicate and cook, for example, but less in my ability to drive. [The Guardian]
Utah was one of only two U.S. states with a COVID-19 case fatality rate of less than one percent. [CTV News]
Final Word on Less vs. Fewer
This fewer vs. less guide has made you realize that rules can be broken sometimes. Instead of using fewer for count nouns and less for mass nouns, consider the vagueness or specificity of quantity.
You can use less for time, money, weight, and other countable nouns. But if the item has a specific and tangible quantity, it’s best to use fewer. Learn the difference between more confusable words like accept vs except!