When talking about the words less and fewer, it generally involves the number or count of a person or thing. But when do we use the word ‘less’ and when do we use the word ‘fewer’? Misuse of these words, believe it or not, is not that uncommon. In fact, they are used inappropriately so often that language enthusiasts are found all over the internet correcting people’s grammar.
Less – Defined as ‘a smaller amount’ and ‘not as much’, the word ‘less’ has always been used with counting nouns. According to the Linguistic prescription (a practice of elevating the manner of language use over another) however, ‘less’ should be used only with a grammatically singular noun including mass nouns and also when it implies a combination of unit or a group. Today, the comparative word ‘less’ is used with both count and mass nouns in some informal discourse environments.
Example 1: John wants to spend less time playing computer games.
Example 2: John’s marriage lasted less than two years.
Fewer – Defined as ‘a smaller number of’, or ‘emphasis on how smaller a number of people or thing is’, should be used with nouns for countable objects and concepts according to the Linguistic prescription. As of today, the rule still applies with the exception of other informal discourse. Also, since the word ‘fewer’ dictates a smaller number of people or things, it should be used with a plural noun.
Example 1: Fewer students are taking arts and crafts.
Example 2: There are fewer children playing at the playground than yesterday.
Less vs Fewer
What’s the difference between less and fewer? While there is still some debate about the usage of both words that is not yet clear, and increasingly the rules are not followed, there are clear differences between the two to keep in mind that will help you with your grammar if you wish to be correct.
The distinction between the words ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ was only recognized in the 18th century. ‘Less’ was said to be used only when it involves singular noun and mass noun, meaning that the noun it’s pertaining to is not possible to count (with the exception of nouns that don’t normally have a plural form such as air, time, rain, money or music). ‘Fewer’ on the other hand should be used with a count noun or a noun in its plural form, simple as that.
Here are more examples to distinguish the two:
Example 1: John just bought a brand new laptop for less than a hundred dollars.
Example 2: John bought fewer laptops than Jane.
Example 3: John eats less bread than he used to.
Note: Count nouns are nouns that can be counted with a number (animals, plants, insects, or parts of the body)
|Used when referring to something that can’t be counted||Used when referring to something that can be counted|
|Emphasizes how small a number of people or things is||Means ‘a smaller amount of’ or ‘not as much’|
|Used with singular nouns||Used with plural nouns|
Here is an informative video further explaining the differences of less and fewer.