Fewer vs. Less: When to Use Each

There’s a bit of a battle between fewer and less. These two words, though similar in meaning, have distinct grammatical purposes. They both indicate a smaller amount of something, but formally, they’re not interchangeable. 

Traditionally, fewer is used with countable nouns (things you can count), while less goes with uncountable nouns (things you can’t count). For example, you would say you have “less food” but “fewer apples.”

But is this always the case? As language evolves, the rules get . . . muddled. And less has been taking over the role of fewer in informal speech. 

The Traditional Rule: Countable vs. Uncountable

The classic grammar rule states:

  • Fewer: Used with countable nouns (e.g., fewer books, fewer mistakes, fewer people)
  • Less: Used with uncountable nouns (e.g., less time, less sugar, less water)

This distinction makes perfect sense. You can have “fewer french fries” on your plate, but you can’t have “less french fry” (because a fry is a unit, not a substance). Similarly, you spend “less time” studying, but you have “fewer hours” to dedicate to it (hours being countable units of time).

More Examples of Fewer vs. Less:

  • “There is less food at the potluck this year.”
  • “There are fewer dishes at the potluck this year.”
  • “I would like to buy less stuff.”
  • “I would like to buy fewer things.”
  • “Can you put less ice in my drink?”
  • “Can you put fewer ice cubes in my drink?”

The Language Evolves: Blurring the Lines

Language is like a living organism: constantly evolving. In recent times, there’s been a growing acceptance of using less with countable nouns in informal contexts.

Examples of Less with Countable Nouns (Informal)

  • “There are less people here than I expected.” (Acceptable in casual speech, but fewer is still preferred in formal writing.)
  • “I have less errands to run today.” (Informal usage, but not technically correct.)

These usages are not technically “correct” but are becoming more and more acceptable. 

If you’re a grammar nerd like I am, you shudder a little bit any time you’re at the grocery store and you see an express lane sign that reads “15 items or less,” because deep down, you know it should be fewer

But this is the way language goes. Rules don’t just determine usage—over time, usage determines the rules too.

Finding the Balance: When to Use Each

So, when do you use fewer or less? Here’s a breakdown:

  • Formal writing: Stick to the traditional rule. Use fewer with countable nouns and less with uncountable nouns for maximum clarity and adherence to proper grammar.
  • Informal speech: In casual conversation, using less with countable nouns might be acceptable, especially if the meaning is clear from the context. However, using fewer is still considered the safer choice.

The Takeaway: Embrace Clarity, Not Rigidity

Language is about communication, and clarity is key. While the traditional rule of fewer for countable nouns and less for uncountable nouns remains a valuable guideline, understanding the evolution of language and the growing acceptance of less in informal contexts equips you to make informed choices. Remember, the goal is to be understood, and sometimes both fewer and less can achieve that in different situations.

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