Grammar: "Less" is more except when it's "fewer"

Less and fewer

This post is part of a series on grammar and vocabulary. From time to time, I will post short articles highlighting some of the common mistakes that people say during their presentation or write on their slides, and how to avoid them.

Comparisons often appear in presentations. We compare the company’s performance this year to its performance last year; or the prices of raw materials from different suppliers; or weights and distances and power and speed and a whole host of other things.

When the first thing in a comparison is greater than the second, we use the word more:

  • More coffee
  • More customers
  • More sand
  • More money
  • More vehicles

However, when the first thing in a comparison is less than the second, there are two words at our disposal: less and fewer. And on this point, many people run into trouble, mainly because they use less when they should be using fewer.

Less or fewer?

While there are some exceptions—this is English after all—the general rule is as follows:

Use “fewer” when the thing can be counted.

Use “less” when the thing cannot be counted.

So, there is less pie but fewer pieces of pie; less distance but fewer kilometres; less snow but fewer snowflakes (because, in theory, you could count the snowflakes).

Looking at our list above, we would have the following:

  • Less coffee
  • Fewer customers
  • Less sand
  • Less money (because money is a collective noun; of course, you could have fewer Dollars, Pounds, Euros, etc. but you can’t have “fewer money”)
  • Fewer vehicles

As mentioned above, there are exceptions and subtleties to the rule. If you are interested, you can read more here and here.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (a must for anyone who does a lot of writing in English) laments:

Regrettable, but prevalent among some standard as well as many non-standard speakers, is the use of “less” with an unprotected plural noun. … The incorrect use is very widespread and seems likely to be ineradicable, however regrettable that may be. As a character in Maurice Gee’s Prowlers(1987) sadly remarks: “Like”, it seems, has taken the place of “as if”. “Less” tips “fewer” out. Less pedestrians, less immigrants.

So the next time you go grocery shopping and you see a cashier beneath a sign that reads, “10 items or less”, you will have the small satisfaction of knowing that it should read “10 items or fewer”.

I confess that after all these years, “10 items or fewer” would sound strange to me and I will stick with “less”. But even corporate giants such as Tesco have bowed to pressure on this point.

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  1. It is comforting to read about this rule yet again, since even highly educated speakers seem to use the incorrect word in all cases.

  2. Interestingly, like you I prefer “10 items or less”. Common usage is everything!

    Especially for speakers and authors, I like to think there’s some poetic licence. So if a “grammar gremlin” works well in a specific case (and if the audience won’t mind – nor perhaps even notice), then go with it.

    For instance, I encourage speakers to start strong. But to be grammatically correct, I should say “start strongly” or “use a strong start”. It’s just that neither of those have as much kick as “start strong”.

    What’s your take on poetic licence, and that particular instance of it?

    1. I also say, “start strong” and of course there is the most famous split infinitive of all time: “To boldy go where no one has gone before.” I’m all for stretching the language and having it evolve, but at the same time, I remain a staunch proponent of good grammar. So I just take things on a case-by-case basis.

  3. In my latest post, I argue you should talk like you’re speaking one-to-one with someone from your audience. So if “less customers” works in the situation, then I believe you should say that.
    For instance, that’s especially so if you used a phrase like “Less selling, less customers, less profit.” Saying “Less selling, fewer customers, less profit” would break the flow. In that example, I reckon there’d be more listeners who’d be distracted by “fewer” sounding like an “odd one out” than by “less customers” being grammatically incorrect. What do you think?

    1. Hi Craig. You have written a good post and I agree with being more conversational. But we part ways on “less customers”. For me, it would be jarring. I agree that most people would not blink at “less customers” but likewise, I think that most people would not be distracted by “fewer customers”. I would stick with the grammatically correct approach. In your example, you could simplify — always a good thing — by saying “less selling, less profit”.

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