Difference Between Fewer and Less
Fewer and less are both words that mean, roughly, ‘not as many as there are now’.
“There needs to be fewer bars of chocolate here.”
“There needs to be not as many bars of chocolate here as there are now.”
The biggest difference is in how they’re used. The traditional advice is that ‘fewer’ is used for countable things and ‘less’ is used for things that cannot be counted. For example, you can count glasses of water, but you cannot count water itself. You can count hugs, but you can’t count love.
“I need to drink less water.”
“I need to drink fewer glasses of water.”
The countable rule for less and fewer first appeared in the eighth century, where it was first a recommendation based on personal preference. Over the years, it became adopted until today, where it’s nearly universal to the language.
However, there are several problems with using that rule. First of all, the countable rule is confusing. For instance, it is technically possible to count water if you separate it into measurable pieces, like cups or liters, but ‘cups of water’ is countable and ‘water’ is not. There are also things that are in plural form, but are considered singular, like money, weight, volume, and other forms of measurement.
Whether something is countable or not is usually a matter of cultural preference. Native speakers will easily understand what’s countable and what’s not, while people who are picking it up as a second language may have more trouble. There are also a lot of exceptions to the rule which can easily be covered with a different rule.
For those reasons, a good rule to use is that ‘fewer’ is for when the item it’s referring to is plural and ‘less’ is for when the item is singular.
“You should put less chocolate in the batter next time.”
“You should put fewer chocolates in the batter next time.”
A few exceptions to the countable rule are units of measuring and money. If you have 1,000 dollars, then it’s obviously possible to count them. However, money is treated as uncountable and as singular.
“We had less than 1,000 dollars in the bank.”
The same is true with measurements, such as time, distance, volume, and weight.
“We had less than five hours left before the deadline.”
“The race track was less than ten miles long.”
“There were less than two pints of milk left in the jug.”
“It weighed less than two pounds.”
Another exception to the countable rule is the ‘one less’ construct.
“All we are hoping for is for one less person to be infected.”
“Try putting one less banana in the mixture next time.”
This would be considered incorrect with the countable rule, since people can be counted. However, it’s fine under the singular or plural rule, since ‘person’ is singular.
However, there is an exception to both the countable rule and the singular and plural rule, and it can be found in the supermarket. There are express lanes that often have an item limit in order to make the line go faster. The sign that appears over these lanes will say, “10 items or less,” or substitute the actual number. This obviously breaks both rules.
The reason for this is that to a native speaker, it feels and sounds more natural to use ‘less’ when it appears after the thing that is described.
“If we get 50 votes or less, then it’s unlikely we’ll win the election.”
To summarize, ‘fewer’ should be used with plurals and ‘less’ with singulars. Money and measurements are considered singular, so use ‘less’ with them. Native speakers also prefer to use ‘less’ when it appears after the item it describes.
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