Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When to use "less" and "fewer"

Oh, oh, oh, I hear people using "less" when they should be saying "fewer" and I think my head is going to explode. I will let people get away with "youse", with only a little wince, but the misguided swapping of "less" and "fewer" fills me with blind white rage and a need to hurl spiky objects. I choose durians, since they're satisfyingly hefty and spiky and I get to eat the insides when I'm done.

I am not a grammar queen. In fact, I'm not even a dancing queen, or any sort of queen at all (although my housemate would fill the last two categories quite nicely - teehee!) But I do know when to use "less" and when to use "fewer". I think I nearly had an aneurysm when I heard it being used on the radio three times on the same day...

"Oh, Ollie, didgew know that there are less choices at the supermarket?"
"Less cars on the freeway today, but still busy."
"New [thingy] has less calories than other [thingies]!"

BLEARGH! (That was the sound of enraged vomiting, in case you didn't know.)

AskOxford says (and I didn't think this was very helpful, although it points out a useful rule for quantities of time):

Less means 'not as much'. Fewer means 'not as many'.

A shower takes less water than a bath, so take fewer baths and more showers.

This can be tricky when referring to quantities. For example, we say less than six weeks, not fewer than six weeks, because we are not referring to six individual weeks, but to a single period of time lasting six weeks.

However, it is always strictly incorrect to refer to less people. People are individuals and come in numbers, not in amounts.

The englishplus site's explanation is a little more clear-cut:
Use fewer with objects that can be counted one-by-one.

Use less with qualities or quantities that cannot be individually counted.

Incorrect: There were less days below freezing last winter.

Correct: There were fewer days below freezing last winter.
(Days can be counted.)

Correct: I drank less water than she did.
(Water cannot be counted individually here.)

When referring to time or money, less is normally used even with numbers. Specific units of time or money use fewer only in cases where individual items are referred to.

Examples: I have less than an hour to do this work.

I have less time to this work.

I have less money than I need.

I have less than twenty dollars.

He worked fewer hours than I did.

The only occasion in which you might say, "I have fewer than twenty dollars," would be when you were talking about specific dollar bills or coins, such as "I have fewer than twenty silver dollars in my collection."


Juliness said...

Awesomely explained. I always get confused with the less/fewer deal too.

tfp said...

That was very good. One of my pet hates is people saying prostrate instead of prostate ... as in the non-existent prostrate cancer.

And "ATM Machine"... and "TEE Exam"... Grrrrr.