This week, the Grammar Guru takes on quantity.
“Fewer” and “less”: two small and seemingly simple comparative words which can cause a great deal of confusion. Some people even seem to think they are interchangeable. They are not!
There is a very simple rule that will help you make the correct choice between “fewer” and “less”. All you have to do is think for a moment about the noun to which you are applying your “fewer” or “less”. Is it a countable or uncountable noun?
If it’s countable – that is, if you can count things in numbers, such as cups of tea, people or puppies, then “fewer” should be used:
I’m trying to drink fewer cups of tea in the afternoon;
There were fewer people at the meeting than I expected;
The cutest pet competition featured fewer puppies than kittens.
If your noun is uncountable, the word you need is “less”:
You should eat less salt if you have high blood pressure;
At the end of the night he had less money than he’d gone out with;
Most people would like to spend less time in meetings.
Confusion between “fewer” and “less” is so widespread that supermarkets commonly display signs for “ten items or less” checkouts, much to the horror of every Grammar Guru, everywhere, who no doubt itch to whip out a pen and correct them to “ten items or fewer”.
One day we might even give in to the temptation!
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