Angela’s ABCs Less and Fewer

Words easily confused

Less and fewer

The distinction between these two words is disappearing fast. In fact, people tend to use less nowadays most of the time, at the expense of fewer.

I’d like to highlight the difference, but first I need to explain that there are two types of nouns: countable and uncountable.Countable nouns can be ‘counted’ and they have a singular and plural form.

  • A book, two books, three books …
  • An apple, two apples, three apples …
  • A person, two people, three people…
  • A sheep, two sheep, three sheep…
  • A mouse, two mice, three mice…

Uncountable nouns (also called mass nouns) cannot be counted. This means you cannot make them plural. It also means that they do not take ‘a’ or ‘an’ or a number in front of them.

  • Water
  • Bread
  • Rain
  • Furniture
  • Sugar
  • Knowledge

We use fewer for countable nouns:

  • Fewer books
  • Fewer apples
  • Fewer people
  • Fewer items
  • Fewer children
  • Fewer sheep

We use less for uncountable nouns:

  • Less water
  • Less bread
  • Less rain
  • Less furniture
  • Less sugar
  • Less knowledge

It’s possible to make uncountable nouns countable by using another countable noun:

  • A jug of water
  • A loaf of bread
  • A drop of rain
  • A piece of furniture
  • A grain of sugar
  • An item of knowledge

Then we would say:

  • Fewer jugs of water
  • Fewer loaves of bread
  • Fewer drops of rain
  • Fewer pieces of furniture
  • Fewer grains of sugar
  • Fewer items of knowledge

Some nouns are both countable and uncountable depending on the context:

  • I wish my dog had less hair. (uncountable)
  • Then I would find fewer hairs all over the sofa. (countable)
  • If there was less noise you’d be able to work. (uncountable)
  • If there were fewer noises in the street, you’d be able to sleep better. (countable)
  • If we used less paper, we’d have more room for office equipment. (uncountable)
  • They decided to publish fewer academic papers and to concentrate on books in future. (countable)

Footnote

Often in supermarkets, you’ll see a sign which says ‘This aisle for ten items or less.’ As we’ve seen, this should read ‘This aisle for ten items or fewer,’ because item is a countable noun. After pressure from the Plain English Campaign, Tesco agreed to change the wording of signs on its fast-track checkouts to read ‘Up to 10 items.’ The change is being phased in across its stores.

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