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)
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.
If you found this article helpful, please share it with friends and click the ‘Like’ and ‘G+’ buttons below. Feel free to ask a question or leave a comment. Thanks!