Less or fewer?

by Liz Walter
Should you say ‘less apples’ or fewer apples’? This is an issue which seems to cause as many problems for people who have English as their first language as it does for learners.

This is probably because most learners will be aware of the difference between countable nouns (such as apple, dog, and child) and uncountable or mass nouns (such as rice, milk, and time), and this is useful for understanding the basic rule:

… use less for things you can’t count (uncountable/mass nouns):

I use less sugar than the recipe recommends.

            Modern cars use less fuel.

… use fewer for things you can count (countable nouns).

Fewer people use libraries nowadays.

            This process leads to fewer errors.

Most first language speakers simply don’t think of nouns in that way. The result is that many of them don’t know that there’s any difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’. Others know, but don’t really care. However, there is a third group that does know, does care, and gets very angry indeed when they are used incorrectly.

In fact, in 2008, the supermarket chain Tesco was forced to get rid of signs at their fast checkouts that said ’10 items or less’. ‘Items’ are things you can count, said the grammar fans, so the sign should say ’10 items or fewer’.  On the advice of the Plain English Campaign, the wording was eventually changed to ‘up to 10 items’.

So what should you do? Well, if you have to write a formal essay or pass an exam, it’s best to stick to the rules above. However, ‘fewer’ does sound formal, and it’s common to use ‘less’ all the time in informal speech.

Fewer sounds particularly formal when it’s followed by than so most people say and write less than:

Less than three out of five people agreed with the statement.

I’ve met Mina less than ten times altogether.

It’s also perfectly correct to use less than with quantities such as periods of time:

He has been there less than three weeks.

The whole thing cost less than five pounds.

That’s because we think of the period of time or the sum of money as one thing rather than as separate units.

One final thought on the supermarket sign. ’10 items or less’ was grammatically incorrect but very clear. ‘Up to 10 items’ may be grammatically correct, but it isn’t as clear – are you allowed 10 items or only 9?

13 thoughts on “Less or fewer?

  1. Emel

    I think we need to stick to the rules as much as possible and fight against incorrect usage, so I say well done to those who point out mistakes.

  2. I am one of those “stick to the rules” people; I even persuaded the manager of my local food market (a Spanish-speaker from the Dominican Republic) to change to “fewer than 10 items.” Also, the notoriously upscale Whole Foods Market chain has always taken pains to be both grammatically and environmentally correct.

    At the same time, I must admit that popular usage will eventually win out. For instance, I have long since given up the fight to drop “hopefully” in the sense, “It is hoped.” And I can see that “fortuitous” (= occurring by chance) is fast become a synonym for “fortunate” (= bringing good fortune).

    On the other hand, the grammar police did manage to expunge “ain’t” from standard English, even though it is a natural contraction from “am not.”

  3. Thanks – helpful piece. The Tesco sign story is a bit sad. “10 items or fewer” is fine. So is “Maximum 10 items”. Did Tesco pay Plain English Campaign (not so much a campaign as a family firm) for a slightly ambiguous five second rewrite?

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  6. Liz Walter

    Yes, I agree with you. That’s why I’m suggesting that it’s probably best to think about it if you’re writing something formal, but in speech I don’t think it really matters so much. The trouble with all of these things is that much as we might think the rules are silly and unnecessary (and I *do* think that this particular one is), there is always someone who will judge you negatively if you make a ‘mistake’. We may decide that we don’t really care about such judgments, but it’s best to be aware of the issues.

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  8. mirta mantelli

    When you say that you think of a period of time as one thing, are you also considering months or years as well? What about decades or centuries? Thanks!

  9. Liz Walter

    Hi Mirta. Yes, I think that does include decades and centuries, e.g.: It’s strange to think that this happened less than two centuries/decades ago. It would sound quite odd to use ‘fewer’ there.

  10. toko manuel emson

    i thank u for provided help published by this way, so i disovered a new and added a least in my brain

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