Less/Fewer; Number/Amount: Still Salvageable

By Maeve Maddox

The difference between less and fewer, like that between lay and lie, is on the brink of extinction, but enough careful speakers and writers observe the difference to make it worth our attention.

In standard usage, less is used to describe amounts:
He has less money than Bill Gates.
They have less soup than we.

Fewer is used to describe things that can be counted:
We have fewer problems now than before.
Fewer voters turned out this year than last.

Here are examples of nonstandard usage in the media:
Maybe Ben and Jerry’s will have less choices. (Fewer choices; less choice)
Their company had less sales. (fewer sales)
Cars that use less gas will result in less emissions. (Less gas, fewer emissions)
Less dollars will be generated. (fewer dollars)
Neutragena: less wrinkles (fewer wrinkles)
Slimfast: more protein, less calories (fewer calories)

What seems to be an exception needs to be noted. One poor NPR reporter came up with this sentence: There is one fewer candidate in the race. I give her points for trying to observe the rule, but the result is not idiomatic. “Less” trumps “fewer” here. Although “candidates” can be counted, one candidate cannot be broken down and counted. There is one less candidate in the race.

Similar to the difference between less and fewer is that between amount and number.

Here is a reporter updating a forest fire:
There’s been no growth in the amount of acres burned. “Acres” can be counted, hence: the number of acres burned. One can talk about the amount of water that has been poured on the fire.

Only time will tell if these distinctions will survive. If enough writers who find them useful use them in their writing, they may make it.

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17 Responses to “Less/Fewer; Number/Amount: Still Salvageable”

  • Daniel

    Very clear explanation. If I ever confused those terms, I am pretty sure I won’t anymore.

  • Roshawn

    It appears that “fewer” is used with words that are pluralized whereas “less” isn’t. Am I correct in my analysis?

    Great post. Keep ’em coming. 🙂

  • Daniel

    Roshawn, I think it depends on the usage.

    For example, you can say “From now on, I will eat less chicken.”

    But you can also say “We had fewer chickens on our house”

  • Roshawn

    Good point, Daniel. Thanks.

  • Rod

    Question Is it correct to use less as a comparative for adjectives?

  • B0mar

    If I hear one more highly paid, professional News Speaker speak of “less Taxes” or less of any other proper noun an “s” attached, I will give up on them entirely!
    It makes precisely as much sense as talking about “fewer rain!”

    If you are discussing individual, distinct, discrete objects the must be added or removed one-at-a-time, you can only have more or fewer of them.

    If you are speaking collectively of a quantity of indistinguishable [and uncounted] objects you can take a portion of them away, leaving less behind.

    You can have fewer Taxes, fewer Deer, or fewer Snow Flakes, but it is more common to refer to these last as “less Snow.”

  • Doug

    Someone once “moderated” (deleted) a brief “fewer vs. less” article I posted to a Wiktionary with the explanation that “less” and “fewer” are now synonymous, interchangeable, with “less” having won the battle. “Less” is the only one of the two words we need, and “fewer” is archaic and has no use in the language any more.

    The moderator did add, however, that he might be persuaded to give “fewer” another look if I could submit a sentence wherein the meaning changed depending on whether one used “less” or “fewer.”

    So sent them this:

    “My girlfriend has fewer boobs than my dog.” This is a simple, non-judgmental statement of anatomical fact, since most dogs have 8 teats whereas most humans have but two.

    “My girlfriend has less boobs than my dog.” This awkward but nonetheless understandable sentence is nothing short of a highly explosive put-down of the sufficiency of my girlfriend’s cleavage!

    🙂

    Can anyone else think of a sentence wherein the difference between “less” and “fewer” so obviously changes the meaning?

  • Doug

    PS: why the 4377 can’t I edit my own posts on this board???

  • Doug

    B0mar said: “If I hear one more highly paid, professional News Speaker speak of “less Taxes” […] I will give up on them entirely!”

    Actually, I could defend the usage “less taxes” on the basis that the word “taxes” in this context (or in the author’s mind) means THE AMOUNT that we pay in taxes, not the numerical count of how MANY individual taxes we pay- I don’t believe that there is any meaningful difference to most people between 100 different small taxes for $1 each and a single tax for $100. What most people care about (and, accordingly, talk about) is the DOLLAR AMOUNT they pay in taxes.

    So it could be that the speaker’s intent here is to say that people are upset over their taxes and want to “pay less [money for] taxes” irrespective of whether the taxation in question is in the form of many small taxes or one large tax for an equal total amount.

    Actually, this is the only meaning that makes sense- because paying “fewer taxes” is irrelevant- the only logical metric is the total AMOUNT paid in taxes.

    How do you folks feel about the ubiquitous “20 items or less” at every check-out line in the U.S.? Do any of you, like me, want to buy a Magic Marker, climb up on the counter and correct it to “20 or fewer items?”

    🙂

  • Owen

    Doug,

    Rah rah! I agree!

    And I love the boobs example — perfect.

  • Matthew

    The rule about fewer and less
    Has left me confused, I confess
    For more things, why then yer
    Should have to say “many-er”
    Which sounds awfully délicatesse!

    Why don’t we say “many-er?” If it’s so important to underline the distinction between countable items and amounts, why do we indiscriminately apply “more” to both categories?
    For that reason the less/fewer rule has always struck me as a matter of style or idiom, and certainly not something to be applied dogmatically to every noun with an “s” on the end. As Doug points out, “taxes” can be understood to refer to an amount and not a collection of items, and there are many other such cases. It seems to me that recently there has been an over-reaction, with people who are afraid of being thought ignorant for saying “less” using “fewer” incorrectly, or at least infelicitously.

  • deeyem

    Fewer and less mean different things. Use fewer water or use less water? “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so … less”?

    Using ‘more’ as the opposite of both ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ doesn’t alter the fact that they have different usage. Sometimes words share an opposite, sometime a word which sounds like it is the opposite means the same (e.g. flammable/inflammable).

    Just part of the charm of the English language. And learning about these quirks when I ain’t doing nothing else makes myself feel much more gooder which is where its at.

  • Cerys

    “Can anyone else think of a sentence wherein the difference between “less” and “fewer” so obviously changes the meaning?”

    Taxes would work for this; if the government were to reduce the number of individual taxes, while increasing the amount paid overall, they could truthfully claim that people now pay “fewer taxes”, whereas saying people now pay “less taxes” would be a lie.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Why don’t you just accept the fact that there are things in out languge that are there for a reason, and that these include
    1. The differrnce between singular and plural?
    2. The difference btween continuous and discrete?

    I could explain why, but I would have to dig into Information Theory (The Science of Efficient Communications) to explain why, and that might just confuse you? Linguists have other ways of explaining why things are the way they are in various families of languages, including our Indo-European family.

  • C.J.

    I always thought that less was singular and fewer was plural.

    For example on a package, it should say “less fat, fewer calories” —but it often says “less fat, less calories.”

    I don’t know why this bothers me so much, but I often send feedback to companies to remind them of the rule. One company has changed the wording on the most recent package I purchased. I’m working on two others.

    In Daniel’s example of chicken (in the 3rd comment) he used “less” with “chicken” (which is used in its singular form) and “fewer” with “chickens” (plural.) I cannot think of an example where the singular/plural rule does not fit.

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