Grammar Fewer vs. Less: Should I Use Fewer or Less? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Fewer vs. Less: Should I Use Fewer or Less?

Less and fewer rank among the closest in meaning between two words, often leading to confusion about which to use in a sentence. They both refer to smaller sizes, amounts, or degrees of something. For example, you could say you are looking forward to fewer hot days in the fall and hoping for less snow this winter. The tough part can be identifying which one to use in different contexts. In this post we’ll help to clear that up for you.

Fewer

Fewer refers to things that are countable.

Examples
We had fewer people at the fundraiser than we had hoped.

Fewer tornadoes occurred this year than last year.

The graduate class will have five fewer students this semester.

My supplier brought me ten fewer jars than usual, but they are larger.

Note that in each sentence, items (people, tornadoes, students, jars) are identified as counted quantities.

Less

Generally, less refers to things that are not countable.

Examples
Sue has less concern for her dog’s safety now that the backyard fence is completed.

Less talking would help my concentration.

I hope we spend less time waiting at the airport.

It’s less frustrating to be cut off in traffic when the other driver apologizes.

In each sentence, the smaller amount concerns concepts that are not counted as separate items (concern, talking, time, frustrating).

Less Than

An exception to the basic principle for less as a modifier of noncountable items is the expression less than, which is used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, money, weight, and distance.

Examples
We will go on vacation in less than four weeks.

She owes him less than $30.

Now that Jackson has been jogging, he weighs less than 200 pounds.

We had less than 25 miles to go but ran out of gas.

This usage is more idiomatic and developed by regular exposure to American English. If you are ever in doubt about whether to use fewer or less than, you can either follow your instincts based on the guidelines above or refer to a style guide such as The Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style.

No Less Than

In informal usage, no less than may be used for emphasis with plural nouns, even though fewer would be the formally correct choice:

No less than 300 people showed up for the concert. OR

No fewer than 300 people showed up for the concert.

Or Less

In informal usage, or less might be used in special cases where fewer would be the formally correct choice:

Write a paragraph about an environmental issue in 200 words or less.

I’m hoping to finish my term paper in three hours or less.

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the correct word or phrase in each sentence.

1. I need [less/fewer] advice and more open-minded questions.
2. We had [less/fewer] injuries on the team than our coach expected.
3. No [fewer/less than] eight students flunked the exam.
4. We had [fewer than/less than] two hours before we had to take the exam.
5. [Fewer/Less] seats were filled for the concert because of the rain.
6. No [fewer/less] than 30 people applied for the job.
7. The muffin should cost a dollar or [fewer/less].

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I need less advice and more open-minded questions.
2. We had fewer injuries on the team than our coach expected.
3. No fewer (OR less) than eight students flunked the exam.
4. We had less than two hours before we had to take the exam.
5. Fewer seats were filled for the concert because of the rain.
6. No fewer (OR less) than 30 people applied for the job.
7. The muffin should cost a dollar or less.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

32 responses to “Fewer vs. Less: Should I Use Fewer or Less?”

  1. atique says:

    Yes It is
    because if we use fewer, it means we are talking about things which are countable. And if people use the word “Less” It means they are talking about such things, are not countable

  2. Jane says:

    Right!

  3. Josh says:

    So what about “a few less”? I was watching a Hyundai ad that referred to the number of cup holders in the Santa Fe compared to a Land Rover, and Kelsey Grammar’s voice over mentioned “$13,000 less… and a few less cup holders.” Is “few less” a grammatically correct substitute for “fewer”?

  4. Jane says:

    “A few less” is not a correct substitute for “fewer.” However, as we know, advertisers care little about grammar, even when the last name of their spokesperson is an almost match (Kelsey Grammer).

  5. Jane says:

    What is the sentence? If referring to different things, eight would normally be written out and 30 would be in numerical form. If referring to the same thing, then you are right that I should have used numbers or wording for both.

  6. Jane says:

    You will find different opinions on this subject. For example, Chicago Manual of Style advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers. There are numerous exceptions to the rule. The important thing is to be consistent.

  7. Deem says:

    Got into an argument today with a friend when I said “one less thing to worry about.” She said, I have to use “fewer” because “thing” is countable. I said, you need two or more (i.e., plural form) for “fewer” to be used.

    Who’s right?

    • You are correct. When the amount is one, such a sentence should read, “I now have one thing fewer” or “one less thing,” but not “one fewer thing.” Admittedly, this is a head-scratcher, but that’s English for you.

  8. Lil says:

    Is it correct to say:

    We educate less than 50% of the children.

    or

    We educate fewer than 50% of the children.

    • We educate less than 50% of the children.

      • Keith says:

        It should be less than fifty percent. It doesn’t matter if that percent is referring to a counting term.

        • We researched this topic further and discovered a response in the Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A section which says that “less than X percent” could be added to the list of plural nouns that denote a measure of time, amount, or distance. Perhaps Chicago will add this to the rules in its next edition. We decided to revise our previous response now. Thank you for your comment.

  9. bob says:

    Grammatical rules say to spell out one through ten, but to use numbers for 11 up.

    • The Chicago Manual of Style advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred. The AP Stylebook recommends using figures for numbers greater than nine. The best strategy is to be consistent.

  10. Gayle Lee says:

    What would be the correct way of saying

    “…because Fred has taken a holiday, it means I have one person less/fewer in my team for next week…”

    Need to resolve an argument with a colleague at work!

    • You’d say “one less person” or “one person fewer,” but probably not “one person less.” In addition, the phrase “on my team” might be a better choice than “in my team.”
      “… because Fred has taken a holiday, it means I have one less person on my team for next week …”

  11. susie says:

    numbers lower than ten are spelled out, anything over ten is written in numerical form.

  12. Fred B. says:

    The grammar police have raided my local grocery store. The express line has a sign that says “12 items or fewer.” The Bluebook of Grammar and Punctuation makes exceptions for time, weight, etc., or when it sounds awkward. This is fodder for a newsletter.

  13. Dancer says:

    What about the word investments? Is it “less investments” or fewer investments”?

  14. Rick Stewart says:

    To me the ‘less than __ % of’ rule sounds awkward when applied to countable items, especially when they are people. “Less than 50% of the men in prison for non-violent drug possession are white, although whites use just as much heroin as blacks,” just doesn’t sound as correct as, “Fewer than 50% of the men in prison … .” Do I just need to re-tune my ear?

    • In our article we mention that “the expression less than is used in front of a plural noun that denotes a measure of distance, amount, or time.” The Chicago Manual of Style considers “less than X percent” a plural noun that denotes a measure of distance, amount, or time, even when used referring to people. Not all proper grammar sounds perfect to the ear.

  15. William says:

    Who knew there were these exceptions when using less. It took me a while but I’ve got it well in hand now. Each week I’m making an improvement. Hooyah!

  16. Carl says:

    Item 4 should indeed use “fewer,” but the word placement threw me.

    I’d have preferred “had one slice fewer.”

    I’m not even sure why.

    • Carl is referring to our “Fewer vs. Less” bonus quiz question in which the correct answer was “Rafi counted 20 slices of pie, but I counted one fewer slice than that.” Writing “… but I counted one slice fewer than that” would also be correct.

  17. Kristine Anderson says:

    Thank you for this. It drives me nuts when writers get this wrong! Will I have fewer nutty days now?

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