Word Choice: Less vs. Fewer
  • 2-minute read
  • 27th November 2014

Word Choice: Less vs. Fewer

The words ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are both comparatives and often used to mean the same thing. However, there are grammatical rules determining which one should be used in certain contexts. Read on to learn more about when to use ‘less’ and when to use ‘fewer’.

Less (Uncountable Quantities)

‘Less’ means ‘a smaller amount of’ and applies to uncountable quantities. It can be used as an adjective, as an adverb meaning ‘to a smaller extent’, and as a noun meaning ‘a smaller amount or quantity’. Here are a few examples:

Adjective: Sidney’s new job means he has less time for his family.

Adverb: This test was less difficult than the other one.

Noun: He’s lucky. People have been fired for less.

We use less as a comparative adjective when discussing uncountable nouns: i.e. something that can’t be counted as individual units, such as a mass quantity of a substance (e.g. water, electricity or sand) or a concept (e.g. time, love or information).

Fewer (Countable Quantities)

‘Fewer’ is also used as a comparative adjective, but means ‘a smaller number of’ and applies to countable quantities. For example:

There are fewer than 2000 mountain pygmy possums left in Australia.

Fewer graduates than ever are securing jobs with decent wages.

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As these examples show, ‘fewer’ is generally used with plural countable nouns: i.e. things that can be counted individually.

The Exception to the Rule

‘Fewer’ is generally used when discussing things which can be counted, while ‘less’ is used when discussing things that cannot be counted. However, ‘less’ is used when discussing quantities of time, distance, volume, money and weight. For example:

He travelled less than two miles before he came to a petrol station.

You owe me less than $10 so don’t worry about paying me back.

This is because quantities like ‘two miles’ and ‘ten dollars’ are treated as one thing rather than a collection of several individual things, meaning that ‘less’ applies instead of ‘fewer’.

Less or Fewer?

While ‘less’ is often used for both countable and uncountable quantities in everyday speech, it’s important to make the distinction in formal writing. Remember:

  • Use ‘less’ when discussing a smaller amount of something;
  • Use ‘fewer’ when discussing a smaller number of things.

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