Confusing words: fewer, less

It is not only learners of English who confuse less and fewer – some native speakers also frequently use them incorrectly.

But less and fewer are not actually so difficult to use correctly: less means ‘a lower amount’, while fewer expresses ‘a lower number’. In other words:

  • fewer and less are both the opposite of more;
  • we use fewer with countable nouns;
  • we use less with uncountable nouns.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • I’ve got less time than I had last year. (time = uncountable noun)
  • He’s got less money than his wife. (money = uncountable noun)
  • Low-fat milk has fewer calories than full-fat. (calories = countable noun)
  • The government built fewer houses last year. (houses = countable noun)

Easy-to-remember tip

If thinking about countable and uncountable nouns is a bit too technical for you, here’s an easy way to remember how to get less and fewer right: Use fewer when the noun is plural (e.g.doors, dogs, people, mistakes, days, etc.) and you will always be correct.

Be careful with money!

Learners can have a problem when speaking about amounts of money. The problem is that, in English, we see $50 as a single sum or amount, not as fifty separate dollars. We therefore say less than $50, NOT fewer than $50.

This same rule applies to distances:

  • He lives less than 10 miles away.
  • He lives fewer than 10 miles away.

Smoke, eat and drink less!

We use less to speak about activities when we don’t use a noun:

  • They eat fewer vegetables. BUT …
  • You’re fat – you should eat less!
  • He smokes fewer cigarettes than before. BUT …
  • He smokes less than before.
  • You should exercise more and eat less.

Now, here’s a quick quiz for you to test yourself on fewer and less.

questionsscoregoes here


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Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.

8 Comments

  1. Tey - September 17, 2012, 5:20 pm Reply

    You’ve got a very helpful site. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise on the matter. 🙂

  2. Alexei - February 26, 2013, 4:14 pm Reply

    Thanks

  3. Jose - June 29, 2013, 6:01 pm Reply

    Thanks

  4. Phuong - October 13, 2013, 4:38 pm Reply

    I need this information for my homeworks, thank you so much 🙂

  5. mahes - January 11, 2014, 5:13 am Reply

    thanks, cook.

  6. Artur - October 2, 2014, 12:31 pm Reply

    Really, it’s a very good test. Thanks.

  7. Hla Moe - January 8, 2017, 5:58 am Reply

    Can we write like the srntence below?
    My mother does not drive less carefully than my father.
    Please reply.

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