Fewer or Less?

You’re waiting in the express check-out line at the grocery store, and you see this sign:

What's wrong with this picture?

Besides the fact that you have thirteen items, what’s wrong with this picture? According to most usage guides and your high school English teacher, the sign is grammatically incorrect. It should read “12 Items or Fewer.”

Writers make errors when choosing fewer or less without even realizing it. This is partly because our word choice when we speak doesn’t always match how we write or what we have been taught.

The general rule is to use fewer when referring to count nouns (things that can be counted) and to use less when talking about mass nouns (things that cannot be counted). For example:

  • The cashier smiled but silently wished you bought fewer bottles of water.
  • The cashier smiled but silently wished you bought less water.

You can’t count how many waters there are, so we use less. But you can count how many bottles of water, so we write fewer.

Another way to think of it, as the Chicago Manual of Style suggests, is to use less for singular nouns and fewer for plural nouns. This also applies to one of the biggest exceptions to the rule.

Of course there are exceptions. The English language loves exceptions to its rules!

For some reason, we typically use less when referring to only one thing, as in the phrase “one less thing to worry about.” You won’t find many cases of “one fewer thing to worry about,” even though it may technically be better grammar.

Other exceptions include contexts involving distance, time, money, weight, percentages, and the word “people.” For example:

  • The grocery store is less than five miles from our house.
  • It took less than ten minutes to put thirteen items into my shopping cart.
  • I thought my total bill would be less than twenty dollars.
  • This is supposed to be a pint, but it’s actually less than sixteen ounces.
  • Less than ten percent of the products in this store are organic.
  • I prefer grocery stores with less than twelve people shopping in them.

So, how do you know when to stray from the rules? In my opinion, the singular/plural consideration will help you make the right choice in most situations.

It also depends on the type of writing. If your piece is more formal (like an academic paper or a nonfiction article), be mindful of where fewer is more appropriate than less. If you are writing something more colloquial (such as fiction dialogue or informal blog posts), you have one less thing to worry about.

Published by Joseph VanBuren

Multimedia storyteller, language lover, and word nerd. Write On! Freelance writing, editing, and proofreading services.

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