These are two words that are easy to mix up with one another. Both fewer and less are used to indicate the same thing, the opposite of more, but they are used at different times. So when do you use which one?
The traditional rules states that you use fewer for counts nouns while you use less for mass nouns. What does this all mean? I’ll explain below.
Count Nouns vs. Mass Nouns
Count nouns and mass nouns? Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, it’s actually pretty easy to tell these a part from each other.
A count noun is a noun that can be enumerated or counted. Cars, for example. You can count how many cars are in a parking lot or how many Skittles you eat. I should eat fewer Skittles. Count nouns have both singular and plural forms, so if you’re not sure if a noun is a count or mass noun, think to yourself if you can make it both singular and plural. If you can, it’s a count noun.
A mass noun is a noun that cannot be counted because every quantity of it is treated as an undifferentiated unit. So while you I count the number of Skittles I eat, you can’t count how much applesauce I eat. Mass nouns, unlike count nouns, cannot be made plural.
When to Use Fewer
As we learned above, fewer is used with count nouns. These are generally individual items. Here are a few example sentences,
- This game is best played with fewer than four players.
- The fewer people that come, the better.
- There are fewer students playing sports today.
When to Use Less
Again, less should be used with nouns that cannot be counted, i.e., mass nouns. These tend to be for bulk or quantity.
- Kids are reading less these days.
- I will need less than a gallon of paint for this room.
- The judge had less mercy on the man than the woman.
Tricks to Remember
One trick that can serve as a guide to help you keep track of these two words it to use less for singular nouns and use fewer for plural ones.
- Less happiness.
- Fewer plates.
Another good way to remember the difference between these two words is to think about your grocery store checkout line. Most grocery stores will have an express lane where it says “10 items or less.” This is incorrect, and it should read “10 items or fewer” because the items in your cart are individual items that are countable. But despite these stores’ incorrect usage, it can serve as a good reminder.
Less can, idiomatically, be used with certain plural nouns, including distances, periods of time, and sums of money. All of these, however, have an element of quantity to them, so less is not completely out of place. For example, the following sentences are all acceptable English,
- My cabin is less than 50 miles away.
- This television program is less than one hour.
- I have less than $100 to my name.
Even now, it’s tricky to determine whether nouns are mass or count nouns. Here are some troublesome sentences how they should appear.
- She was less than 65 years old.
In this sentence, years is referring to a period of time, not 60 individuals years themselves.
- I have less than $50 in my pocket.
In this sentence you are referring to the amount $50, not 50 individual dollars.
- I had fewer than 50 $1 bills in my pocket.
In this sentence you are referring to 50 $1 bills.
Fewer is used with nouns that can be counted and with most plural nouns.
Less is used with nouns that cannot be counted and are bulk quantities. Less can be used with certain plural nouns like time, money, and distances.