“Fewer” vs. “Less”
Updated: May 17, 2022
What is correct? “Fewer” or “Less”?
The Short Story
If it’s counted, use “fewer.”
· Fewer notebooks
· Fewer pairs of glasses
· Fewer punctuation marks
If it’s not counted, use “less.”
· Less ink
· Less work
· Less money
A mass noun is a noun that isn’t counted. For example, we don’t count flour, wood, or air. Use “less” with singular mass nouns.
But we do count jars of flour, piles of wood, and cups of water. It is important to note that we still don’t count the flour, wood, or water here. Instead, we are counting the jars, piles, and cups. These are examples of count nouns. A count noun is a noun that we count. Use “fewer” with plural count nouns.
Another trick to use is if we can put the word “some” in front of the noun, then it is usually a mass noun. Think “some furniture” and “some gold.” If we can put the word “a” in front of the noun, then it is usually a count noun. Think “a TV” and “a pelican.”
Ex: There was less rice in the jar than there was yesterday.
We don’t say “three rices.” This means we don’t count rice and that it is a mass noun, so we use “less.”
Ex: The bag of candy had fewer pieces than I expected.
We do say “seventeen pieces.” We know this is a count noun because we count it, so we use “fewer.”
Ex: We need to use less concrete next time.
We don’t say “five concretes.” This means we don’t count concrete and that it is a mass noun. We know to use “less” in this case.
Ex: She missed fewer questions on the test.
We do say “100 questions.” We count questions, so we know this is a count noun and that we should use “fewer.”
Let’s look at a tricky example. For example, is money a mass noun or a count noun? We definitely do count money. How else do we explain banks and paying for things? But we actually need to think of this word just by itself.
Do we say “three monies”? Nope. So, we actually don’t count the word “money” itself. Instead, we count bills, dollars, and stacks of money. This means that “money” is a mass noun, and we should use “less.”
Ex: I had less money in my wallet than I thought.
Ex: You have fewer twenty-dollar bills than she does.
Some nouns are up for debate, such as “Coke” and “cloth.”
We say “There is some Coke in the breakroom.” (Mass noun.) But we also say “I would like two Cokes, please.” (Count noun.)
So what do we do?
It just depends on how we use it. If we’re talking about the amount of Coke in our cup, it would be a mass noun.
Ex: Unfortunately, there is less Coke in my cup than I need to get through the day.
If we’re talking about several cans of Coke, it would be a count noun.
Ex: We got fewer Cokes than what we ordered.
“Twenty items or less.”
We often see this sign during grocery shopping. But what's interesting is that this example is actually incorrect. Did you catch that? Great! “Items” is a count noun because we do say “twenty items.” So this sign should actually say “Twenty items or fewer.”
“Analysis: Fewer movies in theaters? Big Media turns focus to streaming video”
(Richwine, Lisa, and Coster Helen. “Analysis: Fewer Movies in Theaters? Big Media Turns Focus to Streaming Video.” Reuters. Published October 13, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/walt-disney-restructuring-streamin
Do we count “movies”? Yes. We have a count noun. We’ll want to use “fewer.”
“Dan Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, told me that paying attention to your chronotype and structuring your tasks around your energy peaks can help you get a lot more done in less time.”
(Imber, Amantha. “4 Ways to Get More Done in Less Time.” Harvard Business
Review. Published February 5, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/02/4-ways-to-get-more-done-in-less-time.)
Do we count “time”? Nope. We’re working with a mass noun, so “less” is correct here.
“There were fewer and fewer moments of lucidity, but at least, thank heaven, there were no more nightmares.”
(Clark, Mary Higgins. Remember Me. United Kingdom: Simon & Schuster, 2000.)
Do we count “moments”? Yes. For a count noun using “fewer” is correct.
“Each week fewer visitors came to the museum.”
(Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. United States: Scribner, 2017.)
Do we say “a visitor” or “some visitor”? Definitely “a visitor.” We are dealing with a count noun, so we use “fewer.”
“This tart recipe is the adult version of the toaster snack you loved as a kid but with a lot less sugar.”
(Bon appétit.“89 Recipes with 5 Ingredients or Fewer—Seriously.” Published March 18, 2020. https://www.bonappetit.com/gallery/simple-recipes-five-ingredients.)
Do we say “some sugar” or “a sugar”? It’s “some sugar.” This means we are dealing with a mass noun, and we know to use “less” with mass nouns.