Making Fewer Mistakes, Not Less

Why do we say:

We have less money to buy fewer groceries.

Instead of:

We have less money to buy less groceries.

Or:

We have fewer money to buy less groceries.

Because grammar, the mechanics of language, matters. Said Melissa Biro in a recent LinkedIn discussion on less and fewer: “Does grammar matter? Do the nuts and bolts in your car’s engine matter? Only if you want the car to run smoothly/only if you want communication to flow.” We want our writing to communicate our messages, our meaning. We want to take the ideas in our heads and transfer them to our readers. And when the mechanics of language are wrong or seem off, our writing doesn’t go smoothly and something gets lost in the translation to our readers. I don’t know about you, but that second example sentence gave me pause and that last one made me cringe.

The Difference Between Less and Fewer

To begin with, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines less as “constituting a more limited number or amount.” It defines fewer as “a smaller number of persons or things.” The definitions themselves point to the terms’ different usage. Less refers to a mass of something (mass noun), whereas fewer refers to something we can count (countable noun). Less is generally used for mass nouns (less sand, less meaning), while fewer is used for countable nouns (fewer books, fewer children). Said another way, less is for singular nouns (less pride, less flour) and fewer is for plural nouns (fewer emotions, fewer flowers).

Except

You knew there would be a wrinkle, right? It wouldn’t be English without one. Less, or more properly less than, can also be used for time, amounts, or distances:

  • She has less than three weeks to complete her manuscript.
  • I’ve saved less than $1,000 this year.
  • The children walked less than two miles to the store.

In these cases, although a specific amount of time, money, or distance is given, the meaning is for some unspecified amount less than that specified.

And of course, language is changing all the time. Bryan A. Garner notes in the latest edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage that less is appearing more frequently in places where fewer once did. Garner offers this example: “You will have less [read fewer] people to call and haunt about paying for their outfits and buying their accessories.” “Advice for the Bride,” Boston Herald (Mag.), 19 Oct. 1997, at 6. (507)

My own reaction, and perhaps yours as well, to my initial example sentences bear this out, too. Less groceries doesn’t offend me quite as badly as fewer money. And let’s not forget the classic example:

Garner cites the “12 items or less” lane as a big part of less overtaking fewer in some cases. According to Garner’s Language-Change Index, this error is at stage 3: “commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.”

Recap

  • Less is used for mass nouns, such as music and education.
  • Fewer is used for count nouns, such as lyrics and classes.
  • Less is also used for time, amounts, and distances: 12 hours, $3, 10 miles.
  • Be aware that less is being used more often for fewer (12 items or less); while it is widespread, the careful writer should avoid it.

Have questions on less vs. fewer or another grammar point? Drop me a line or leave it in the comments below.

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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