Less vs. Fewer

Less and fewer rank among the closest in meaning between two words, often leading to confusion about which to use in a sentence. In this article we’ll help to clear that up for you.

Both less and fewer 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.

Less vs. Fewer: A Basic Rule

In deciding between less and fewer, you can follow a simple, long-standing rule that says to use fewer for things you count and less for things you do not count.

There should be three or fewer people waiting in the lobby at any time. (People are being counted.)
The graduate class will have five fewer students this semester. (Students are being counted.)
My supplier brought me ten fewer jars than usual, but they are larger. (Jars are being counted.)

I hope we spend less time waiting at the airport. (Time is an uncountable quantity.)
It’s less frustrating to be cut off in traffic when the other driver apologizes. (Frustrating can’t be counted.)
Sales were steady this quarter but less than management had hoped. (The sales here are general in reference and not countable.)

Less vs. Fewer: Exceptions to the Rule

The guidance to use fewer for items that are counted is good, but it does not cover every situation. For instance, we can sometimes use less when referring to general quantities of time, money, weight, and distance.

It felt great to see my credit card balance drop to less than $500.
I see a lot of shows because I live less than two miles from the theater.
I’m hoping to finish my term paper in three hours or less.

This usage is more idiomatic and developed by regular exposure to American English. If you are ever in doubt, simply adhere to the guidelines stated above. You can also refer to a specific style guide such as The Associate Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style.


Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the correct word or phrase in each sentence according to the main guidelines discussed.

  1. I’ve been having [less/fewer] headaches since I started getting more sleep.
  2. Shane will accept no [less/fewer] than 10 baseball cards for his pouch of chewing gum.
  3. Now that she’s on her new diet and exercise regimen, Beatrice has been experiencing [less/fewer] stress.
  4. That guitar appears to have two [less/fewer] strings than it should.


Pop Quiz Answers

  1. I’ve been having fewer headaches since I started getting more sleep.
  2. Shane will accept no fewer than 10 baseball cards for his pouch of chewing gum.
  3. Now that she’s on her new diet and exercise regimen, Beatrice has been experiencing less
  4. That guitar appears to have two fewer strings than it should.


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2 Comments on Less vs. Fewer

2 responses to “Less vs. Fewer

  1. Leisa Moon says:

    So many people here at our police department always capitalize the words “police officer” wherever it appears in their sentence.
    Please settle the rule on when to capitalize job titles.

    Example of how it is used: An Officer checked in service.

    Example: The Police Chief entered the room.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Organizations may have their own style preferences for titles. GrammarBook.com and prevailing stylebooks would not treat most titles as proper unless they precede an individual’s name.

      After a short break, the police chief entered the room.
      After a short break, Police Chief McCauley entered the room.

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