Less vs. fewer


Hard to read, but it says "10 or fewer items"

The most famous example of the confusion between these two words is the ubiquitous “10 items or less” signs at your local Piggly Wiggly. It actually should be “10 items or fewer,” like the one to the left that was snapped at a grocery store in Ithaca, NY, home of Cornell University. You know, one of the seven Ivy League universities. See now why they’re so expensive? They know and teach the difference between less and fewer.

You see, if you can quantify something with numbers, if you can count it, use fewer.

If you can measure it (or can’t count it, because you can’t measure things like insanity, obnoxiousness or stupidity), use less.

• I drank fewer shots of corn likker than you did.

You can count shots (for a while, anyway).

• You drank less Mad Dog 20/20 than I.

You can’t count Mad Dog 20/20 individually.

(Now, don’t go all John Dalton on me and say that you can count the atoms in Mad Dog, because it’s that kind of fussy, hair-splitting, over-analytical thinking that can make these concepts impossible to digest. This isn’t physics or chemistry. It’s English grammar, and to internalize it, you must resort to tiresome, rote, mindless memorization, not beard-stroking philosophical discussions or or particle-versus-wave debates.)

All right, let the shrieking begin — there is, of course, an exception: when referring to time or money, use less even with numbers. Specific units of time or money use fewer only in cases where individual items are referred to:

• Less time, but fewer minutes

• Less money, but fewer dollars

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1 Comment

  1. Best short example is on the back of Old El Paso taco Shell packs, which specify microwave timings with perfect grammar capturing the essential difference between the two words:

    “Place the taco shells open end down on your microwave plate. It’ll take about a minute for six shells, and less for fewer.”

    Easy!


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