• Annie Tucker
  • Grammergency #17: Fewer vs. Less—the Counting Conundrum
Grammergency #17: Fewer vs. Less—the Counting Conundrum
Contributor
Written by
Annie Tucker
July 2015
Contributor
Written by
Annie Tucker
July 2015

After my last post, one of you requested a breakdown of the difference between fewer and less. This question seems to become thornier the more people try to unpack it, but let’s talk about the basic distinction between these two terms.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, section 5.220, explains the fewer/less issue as follows: “Reserve less for amounts or mass nouns—for example, less salt, dirt, water. Reserve fewer for countable things—for example, fewer people, calories, suggestions.” CMS further recommends thinking of less as referring to singular nouns (e.g., less money) and fewer as referring to plural nouns (e.g., fewer dollars) as a shortcut.

The gray area in this discussion emerges when it comes to quantifying a period of time, a distance, or an amount of money. For example, if you wanted to let a friend know that you were almost at the restaurant where you were meeting her for dinner, what would you say in a text: I’ll be there in fewer than five minutes or I’ll be there in less than five minutes? In that case, I would use the latter option, because I see less than five minutes as a singular unit of time in this context.

Similarly, if I were describing a distance I had to travel, I would say, The hotel is less than ten miles from here, not The hotel is fewer than ten miles from here, because, again, the distance ten miles acts as a singular unit of measurement. And I would say, I have less than $5 in my wallet for the same reason.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a big fan of alternative solutions when a question like this comes up, and the fewer/less quandary presents plenty of opportunities to sidestep confusion by simply reframing the sentence you’re trying to use. For instance, instead of telling your friend, I’ll be there in fewer than five minutes or, I’ll be there in less than five minutes, why not just say, See you in five minutes? Or, rather than saying, The hotel is less than ten miles from here, try The hotel is only about ten miles from here.

Ultimately, not many people will take you to task if you aren’t entirely clear on when to use fewer and when to use less, either because they don’t know the correct usage themselves or because they don’t want you to call them out for being a grammar snob. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to understand the difference, because the fewer errors you make, the less work we editors have to do.

Have a grammar question? Leave it in the comments below. 

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Comments
  • Pamela Fender

    By the way, I love this article!

  • Pamela Fender

    Drives me crazy when I hear people say "less people," or whatever. Is it that difficult to use the proper word? It's difficult for me not to correct them, but I do correct my husband!

    Just venting today after a terrible day of substitute teaching... What's with that stupid expression, "My bad?" It doesn't mean anything and I tell the students who say that they're smarter than that..to not use that expression because it makes them sound not smart.

    Arrgghh.

  • Deborah Clearman

    "Call them out for being a grammar snob"? I'm PROUD to be a grammar snob! We're a dying breed.

  • Summer Dawn Laurie

    "...the fewer errors you make, the less work we editors have to do." This sentence nailed it! Thanks for all your valuable grammar reminders.

  • Joyce Ann Brown

    I've heard and read the word "less" misused everywhere, and it drives me nuts. Who would say, I'm fewer able to stomach this mistake as time goes on? But many people feel free to say, It would be nice if less people made this mistake in the future. Ugh. Thanks for the post.