A Lesson on “Fewer” and “Less”

This past week, when I led the online class Business Writing Tune-Up, I was surprised at the number of people who used the word less where they should have used fewer. Test yourself on the items below to find out how much you know before reading this lesson.

  1. He would like to be able to express himself using fewer/less words.
  2. Would you like to receive fewer/less email?
  3. This checkout lane is for people who have fewer/less than 15 items.
  4. Fewer/Less than 30 percent of participants could identify passive verbs.
  5. Next time please give me fewer/less strawberries.
  6. Can someone who is fewer/less than 44 inches tall ride this attraction?
  7. She had fewer/less commuting problems when she lived in Seattle.
  8. I leave for San Jose in fewer/less than two weeks.
  9. He had fewer/less than $40 in his wallet when he arrived in New York.
  10. I have fewer/less miles on my rewards program than I thought I had.

When I completed the test, I had used fewer five times and less five times. Do your numbers agree with mine?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are my answers:

1. fewer   2. less   3. fewer   4. Less   5. fewer   6. less      
7. fewer   8. less   9. less   10. fewer

 

Rules of Fewer and Less

Fewer is used for individual items (rather than for bulk or quantity) that are plural nouns. Fewer is never used with a singular noun. Consider these examples from the test above:

1. He would like to be able to express himself using fewer words. (Each word is an item. Words is plural.)

3. This checkout lane is for people with fewer than 15 items. (Items is plural.)

5. Next time please give me fewer strawberries. (Each strawberry is an item. Strawberries is plural.)

7. She had fewer commuting problems when she lived in Seattle. (Each problem is an item. Problems is plural.)

10. I have fewer miles on my rewards program than I thought I had. (Each mile is an item. Miles is plural.)

 

The word less is used for bulk or quantity rather than individual items. It appears with singular nouns.

I wish the rules were that simple.

However, the phrase less than appears with plural and singular nouns. According to The Gregg Reference Manual, less than is used for periods of time, distance, amounts of money, quantities, and percentages. Garner's Modern American Usage adds measurements to that list. These examples from the test require less and less than:

2. Would you like to receive less email? (The email is in bulk; email is a singular noun.)

4. Less than 30 percent of participants could identify passive verbs. (30 percent is, of course, a percentage.)

6. Can someone who is less than 44 inches tall ride this attraction? (44 inches is a measurement or distance.)

8. I leave for San Jose in less than two weeks. (Two weeks is a period of time.)

9. He had less than $40 in his wallet when he arrived in New York. ($40 is an amount of money.) 

 

Of course, common usage affects what is considered correct. With the prevalence of supermarket checkout lanes whose signs say "10 items or less" rather than "10 items or fewer," the phrase "or less" has become generally accepted. Written tasks are frequently assigned as "200 words or less" rather than "200 words or fewer."

I admit that I might choose "200 words or less" because that phrasing has begun to sound correct, the same way "It's me" works better than "It is I" these days. Although a strict grammarian would attack that position, we have to consider which language gets the message across more effectively in business communication.

Of my reference books, Garner's Modern American Usage has the best, most detailed explanations of the fewer vs. less issue. Garner offers this tip:

"If you have trouble distinguishing the two words, try substituting a phrase. If "not as much [as]" fits, make it less. If "not as many [as]" is better, use fewer 

How about another test? Decide on fewer or less in these sentences:

  1. We need fewer/less than $90 to reach our goal.
  2. I wish fewer/less individuals would walk through our meeting room.
  3. We received fewer/less applications than we had expected.
  4. He lives fewer/less than 50 miles from where he grew up.
  5. Do you know why fewer/less asparagus was available this season?
  6. Fewer/Less than half our dinners include meat.
  7. His goal is to make fewer/less errors in punctuation.
  8. Receiving fewer/less junk mail would make me happy.
  9. She writes fewer/less than three memos a month.
  10. The trend is toward using more machines and fewer/less employees.

Again I included five instances of fewer and five of less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare your answers with mine:

1. less (amount of money)
2. fewer (individuals)
3. fewer  (items)
4. less  (distance)
5. less  (bulk)
6. Less  (portion, amount)
7. fewer (items)
8. less (bulk)
9. fewer (items)
10. fewer (individuals)

How well did you do? Do you agree with the explanations I shared? I welcome your suggestions.

Lynn
Syntax Training

 

9 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Lynn,
    I do agree with you on the ‘fewer and less’ usage. and oh, I got them all correct.
    As for the ‘It’s me’ versus the ‘It’s I’ usage, I would rather think that ‘It’s I’ would be when the pronoun ‘I’ is the doer, like ‘Who broke the vase?’ And the answer would be ‘It’s I’. (‘I’ was the one who broke the vase) and ‘Whom did Sam go with?’ (It’s) me. (Sam went with me).
    Anyway, as you so rightly pointed out, accept words/phrases that come across as more effective and widely used, as language is primarily about usage – language is ‘alive’ only when it is used). Grammar rules are just rules, and rules are basically made to be broken.

  2. Lynn,
    I wanted to express how much I appreciate your blog. It has been a tremendous help. However, when I am tested (as in this week’s post), I find that my instincts are accurate only 75 percent of the time. It seems that where grammar is concerned, I can do little better.

    Have you found this to be true with others, and what is your perspective on this?

    Marlene

  3. Hi, Marlene. Interesting question!

    I believe 75 percent accuracy is excellent on the tests I offer here. You are doing very well. Some people confess to me that they get most items wrong.

    The reason I cover a topic is that people ask me about it. Or it is that I notice people making errors in business writing courses. I am surprised when people get all the answers correct, as Penny did (above).

    I would not be concerned about your 75 percent score, as long as you recognize why certain answers would not generally be considered correct.

    I appreciate your question.

    Lynn

  4. Thanks for the great information.
    I am preparing for GMAT and most of the resources failed to explain the proper usage of less and fewer.
    You instill far more sense and accuracy.

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