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Crimes against English: Fewer and Less

How many of us are honest enough to say that we have made grammatical errors either in speech or written text?  I know I have, but I don’t like to admit it.  Although it is easier to get away with making such errors when speaking, unfortunately that is not the case when it comes to writing.

Take a look at the following examples of monumental confusion between the use of ‘fewer’ and ‘less’. These faux pas certainly cost a lot of money and probably cost someone their job.

Greenpeace launched an entire poster campaign with the logo ‘Less Boats More Fish’ and had to relaunch the entire campaign with the amended logo ‘Fewer Boats More Fish’.  Hilariously, but not surprisingly, the Daily Mail online edition sets a low standard of English and regularly struggles to maintain it.  In 2010, they led with an article ‘Millions spent on a 5-day mantra but now we’re eating even LESS vegetables’.  Jenny Hope hang your head in shame!

Today’s lesson is looking at two comparative words that talk about quantities, amounts and degree, fewer and less.  Fewer is the comparative form of few, whilst less is the comparative form of little.

Fewer and less are both the opposite of more.

We use fewer, meaning ‘not as many’, for things we can quantify.  Few and fewer express a lower number.

Less refers to a commodity such as water, which cannot be counted individually.  Less means a lower amount.  Less is also used with adjectives and adverbs.

I’m less happy since gaining a few pounds.

He ate less quickly than me; hence I gained the few pounds!

Point to note when talking about quantities: weight, money, distance and time.

When we talk about money, we see £10 as a single sum of money, not as ten separate pounds.  The same also applies to distance, e.g. I live less than five miles from the airport.  Finally when referring to time, we say less than three weeks, because we are referring to a single period of time and not the individual weeks.

If You Remember Nothing Else, Remember This!

A quick and easy way to remember which one to use without having to think of all the technical elements, countable or uncountable, is to apply the ‘singular versus plural’ rule.  For singular nouns (e.g. sugar, water, money, rain, etc.) use ‘less’ and for plural nouns use ‘fewer’ (e.g. mistakes, people, days, raindrops etc.)

Put Yourself To The Test:

  1. Water has fewer/less calories than orange juice.
  2. I have got fewer/less than two hours before the flight departs.
  3. There are fewer/less grains of sand on my beach towel than yours.
  4. There is fewer/less sand on my beach towel than yours.
  5. No fewer/less than 40 people applied for the position.
  6. If you use just one cup of liquid detergent you will have fewer/less bubbles.

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