Choosing to say fewer or less in English is a grammar point that native speakers get wrong as well as foreign learners. This is not because it is complicated, but because less often sounds simpler or more natural than fewer. And (as with much in English language) not everyone pays close attention to the rules. There are only a few simple things you need to know to use less correctly, though. These rules are discussed below, with an exercise to follow.:
Less is used for qualities and quantities that cannot be counted individually. This means use less for uncountable nouns, or mass nouns as they are also known, such as liquids, emotions and time.
Fewer is used for countable objects, that is anything that can be counted one by one.
- There was less rain today than yesterday.
- There were fewer stray cats last year.
Less is used for uncountable concepts such as time and money, even though they may involve numbers. In these cases we only use fewer when we refer to a specific unit.
- I had less free time to complete my homework than Jim.
- The small elephant costs less than the big one.
- Sally spent fewer hours on the computer after she broke the keyboard.
- We have fewer pound coins than pennies.
Using fewer for uncountable nouns
In the above example we can say fewer when referring to specific coins. We often make an uncountable into a countable noun by referring to a container or unit.
- There was less ice cream in the tub .
- We had fewer ice cream cones than before.
Less in common English
English speakers frequently make mistakes with less and fewer, which you can even find in print. This is because fewer is being used less in modern language, with many people simply using less for everything. It may not be because the speaker is ignorant of the rules – less is a shorter and more common word, so it is popular in advertising and television. A common example of an error is using less for people, and nouns referring to people. For instance you may see less people – which should be fewer people, as people is countable.
Other uses of less
Less can be used to indicate something is not as much one thing as another, for instance ‘The announcement was less a confession than an accusation.’
Less than may be used with some adjectives for a less direct negative statement. For example ‘The politician was less than honest about tax increases.’ In a very British style, it avoids directly stating that the subject did something negative.
Fewer or less exercise
Choose fewer or less to complete the following sentences. Answers can be found below.
- The university has _______ students this year than last.
- Lucy takes _______ care of her siblings than is good for them.
- The DJ on this radio station plays _______ rock songs than he used to.
- Stuart has _______ ideas than everyone else.
- Celery has _______ calories than chocolate has.
- The students have _______ time to eat lunch now that the class periods are longer.
- Does England have _______ culture than Scotland?
- She has _______ responsibilities now that her mother has come to help.
- The DJ on this radio station plays _______ jazz music than he used to.
- The express line is only for shoppers with ten items or _______.
- There are _______ men in your family than women.
- Amy dumped me, but that doesn’t mean I like her any _______.
- If you turn off the light when you leave the room, you’ll use _______ energy.
- There is _______ graffiti in Hove than there is in Brighton.
- There are _______ tourists around this year because of the snow.
- Maybe he would worry _______ if he planned more.
- There are always _______ buses on Sundays.
- She has _______ interest in flowers than he does.
- The students have _______ minutes to eat lunch as the classes are longer.
- The government has recommended eating _______ salt.
- I hope _______ snow falls this year.
- We saw _______ seagulls on the beach than yesterday.
- Fewer – because students are countable.
- Less – because care is uncountable.
- Fewer – music is uncountable, but songs are a countable unit of music.
- Fewer – ideas are countable.
- Fewer – calories are countable.
- Less – because time is uncountable.
- Less – culture is uncountable.
- Fewer – responsibilities are countable.
- Less – music is uncountable.
- Fewer – items are countable. However you will often see less used in this situation, because it is shorter and therefore clearer to shoppers.
- Fewer – men is countable.
- Less – we are qualifying like, which is uncountable.
- Less – energy is uncountable.
- Less – graffiti is uncountable.
- Fewer – tourists is countable.
- Less – we are qualifying worry, which is uncountable.
- Fewer – buses are countable.
- Less – interest is uncountable.
- Fewer – minutes are a countable unit of time. Although this is quite an unnatural sentence this way.
- Less – salt is uncountable.
- Less – snow is uncountable.
- Fewer – seagulls are countable.
For another exercise that tests less and fewer in the context of uncountable and countable nouns, see here.