Less or fewer?
There are less problems with finding staff these days too.
If anything, we’ve had fewer problems than we expected.
Do you ever waver when it comes to choosing between less and fewer? You’re in good company, as the above examples (both taken from a British newspaper website on the same date) demonstrate. You may even be one of the many people who are blissfully unaware that there’s a distinction between the two. Alternatively, if you’re like me, a stickler to the core, you’re likely to wince every time you spot ‘less problems’ and similar cases of non-standard usage.
A few months ago, we ran the following poll:
This exercise wasn’t as straightforward as it might appear at first sight, and it was clear from our results that native and non-native speakers alike find less versus fewer to be one of the thornier issues of English usage. In total, 1,699 of you took the original test: if you didn’t, it’s no longer live, but why not take a minute to think about which of the four options above you’d have ticked as being correct?
OK? There are three correct examples, and one incorrect one. Check your answers:
√ There were fewer books in the library than last time.
√ (In a supermarket/store) Ten items or less.
X If you use poor grammar, you’ll impress less people.
√ Learning English is less difficult than you might think.
And here are the original poll results, showing the number/percentage of people who believed each example to be correct:
|There were fewer books in the library than last time.||651||38.32|
|(In a supermarket/store) Ten items or less.||238||14.01|
|If you use poor grammar, you’ll impress less people.||96||5.65|
|Learning English is less difficult than you might think.||714||42.02|
Less head-scratching, fewer mistakes
How did you get on? It was heartening that only 5.65% of the original respondents believed that the sentence containing the phrase ‘less people’ was OK, but I was mildly surprised that the correct sentences didn’t get more votes. For instance, I’d have expected a very high percentage of replies indicating that the ‘less difficult than you might think’ option was right. Fewer couldn’t be used in that sentence, as less is behaving as an adverb in that case, modifying an adjective (i.e. difficult) rather than a noun, and meaning ‘to a smaller extent’.
Let’s try to banish the uncertainty and take a closer look at the rules governing less versus fewer. The basic difference is simple to grasp.
Less means ‘a smaller amount of; not as much’. If you’re referring to a smaller amount of something that can’t be counted or that doesn’t normally have a plural (nouns such as money, air, time, rain, or music), then less is the word you should choose. For example:
√ It’s a better job but they pay you less money.
√ People want to spend less time in traffic jams.
√ Thursday will be colder, but with less rain.
√ I eat less bread than I used to.
Few is used to emphasize how small a number of people or things is:
√ She had few enemies.
√ Graham is a man of few words.
Fewer is the comparative form of few, so if you’re talking about a smaller number of people or things, you should use fewer with a plural noun (e.g. houses, dogs, clothes, mistakes). For instance:
√ Half of all students are working fewer hours a week.
√ Today, fewer houses of this type are being constructed.
√ Less economic freedom means fewer jobs.
√ Fewer students are opting to study science-related subjects.
But beware! There are several common English nouns whose plural forms don’t end in ‘s’. Some of the main ones are people, children, men, and women. As these are still plurals, you should opt for fewer and not less. Many people fall into this trap: a survey of the Oxford English Corpus, our two-billion-word database of today’s English, shows that around 21% of examples wrongly use less before people and 8.5% use less before children:
X Due to the recession, less people are going on holiday.
X The typical family now has less children than in the past.
So the general rule is that if you’re talking about an amount of something that can’t be counted, it’s less and if you’re talking about a number of people or things, it’s fewer. Another way to remember the main distinction is to think along the following lines:
not as much = less
not as many = fewer
There’s always a ‘but’. . .
However, there are a couple of issues to be wary of. Firstly, having absorbed the guidelines above, you may suppose that some supermarkets are grammatically on the ball by displaying notices at checkouts that state ’10 items or fewer’ (fewer rather than less being the right choice because it’s referring to items, that is, a number of things?). In fact, there were reports a few years back that Tesco had replaced their signs reading ’10 items or less’ with ones which said ‘Up to 10 items’, so as to placate the sticklers. Sorry, no need! This is an example of hypercorrection. Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage puts it very succinctly:
‘Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read 5 items or less (which refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read 5 items or fewer (which emphasizes individuality, surely not the intention).’
Secondly, in sentences and phrases with ‘than’, you should use less with numbers when they are on their own:
√ His weight fell from 18 stone to less than 12.
√ A person with a score of less than 100 will have difficulty obtaining credit.
and when talking about distance, time, ages, and sums of money:
√ Companies less than five years old are the ones bringing us new job creation.
√ Per capita income is reckoned to be less than 50 dollars per year.
√ Heath Square is less than four miles away from Dublin city centre.
But hold on, I hear you say – the measurements (years, miles, dollars, etc.) are in the plural, so why isn’t fewer the correct choice? Not so! We use less in such cases because we’re actually still referring to total amounts (of time, money, distance, etc.) rather than individual units.
Here’s hoping that this advice has helped you to feel less confusion and to cause fewer pedants to find fault with your English.