Fewer or Less?

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Difference between "Fewer" and "Less"?

"Fewer" and "less" are easy to confuse because the rules are not as simple as many people believe.
  • Use "less" when referring to a single item. For example:
    • less money
    • less cheese
    • less haste
  • Use "fewer" when referring to more than one item. For example:
    • fewer coins
    • fewer pieces of cheese
    • fewer rats
  • Use "less than" when referring to a time or a measurement. For example:
    • less than 4 weeks
    • less than 90 degrees
    • less than 300 calories

    "less than 300 calories"

    Not all grammarians agree that "less than 300 calories" is acceptable. Some would prefer "fewer than 300 calories," claiming that only a time or measurement preceded by a number attracts "less than." However, most judge that any noun preceded by a number constitutes a measurement, thereby justifying "less than."

    Our stance? We would use "less than."

    (If you disagree, you can tell us here.)
    less or fewer?

    More about "Fewer" and "Less"

    The rules on using "less" and "fewer" mean that "less" is always used with non-countable nouns (as they can't be pluralized), and "fewer" is always used with countable nouns.

    However, remember that there is a quirk. The term "less than" is used with numbers before times and measurements (e.g., less than four days, less than 12 miles).

    Example Sentences with "Fewer" and "Less"

    • There is less cheese on this plate.
    • (The word "cheese" is singular.)
    • There are fewer pieces of cheese on this plate.
    • (The word "pieces" is plural.)
    • There are less pigeons in Trafalgar Square than there used to be.
    • (should be "fewer pigeons")
    • In the future, there will be less coins in circulation.
    • (should be "fewer coins")
    • Fewer people will vote in the forthcoming elections.

    "Less Than" with Times and Measurements

    Use "less than" (as opposed to "fewer than") with numbers used with times and measurements. For example:
    • Unemployed? You can get a great job in less than three months. How? Learn to program. (Author Tucker Max)
    • Butterflies cannot fly if their body temperature is less than 86 degrees.
    The rules with "fewer" and "less" are under change. Few people would challenge "less than" being used with a number that doesn't quantify a date or a measurement.
    • There are fewer than 10 species left.
    • There are less than 10 species left.
    • (A strict grammarian might expect this second example to be marked wrong, but nowadays it is "fewer than 10 species" that sounds the more awkward. If you're unsure whether to use "fewer than" or "less than" with a plural noun modified by a number (e.g., 4 cats, 81 books), then use the one that comes naturally. If you opt for "less than," you can claim to be dealing with a measurement, which would justify your decision to use "less than.")
    Look at this example:
    • He wanted to eat fewer calories. He limited himself to less than 2000 calories a day.
    • (The first "calories" is not measured. The second "calories" is measured.)
    Here is evidence from Google's Ngram viewer proving that "less than" is more common than "fewer than" with a plural noun modified by a number. (Remember that Google's Ngram viewer scans millions of published books. It does not trawl informal texts such as emails, blogs, or social-media entries. This makes it a powerful tool for identifying grammar usage among credible writers.)

    Common Terms with "Fewer" and "Less"

    Here are some common terms with "fewer" and "less":

    Fewer
    • fewer people
    • fewer miles
    • fewer hours
    • fewer calories
    Less
    • less staff
    • less time
    • less haste
    Less Than
    • less than 3 hours
    • less than 45 degrees
    • less than 100 calories
    • (Some might use "fewer than" with a non-time or non-measurement like "calories," but you can justify "less than" by claiming this is a measurement of calories.)

    A Video Summary

    Here is a 1-minute video summarizing this lesson on "fewer" and "less":

    Adopt the Fewer/Less Ruling

    Many people consider the fewer/less ruling to be outdated. It is certainly not well observed by some large reputable companies. For example:


    less bags (fewer bags )
    (Wall*Mart poster)


    less napkins (fewer napkins )
    (Starbucks napkin)


    less emissions (fewer emissions )
    (Volvo advert)

    We advise that you play it safe and adopt the ruling. Using "less" incorrectly may irk your readers. Using "fewer" correctly will showcase your grammar skills.

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    See Also

    adverse or averse? affect or effect? Ms., Miss, or Mrs? avenge or revenge? bare or bear? complement or compliment? dependant or dependent? discreet or discrete? disinterested or uninterested? e.g. or i.e.? envy or jealousy? imply or infer? its or it's? material or materiel? poisonous or venomous? practice or practise? principal or principle? tenant or tenet? who's or whose? Are collective nouns singular or plural? Singular or plural verbs after prepositional phrases (e.g. a box of tapes) List of easily confused words

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