The Nitty-Gritting of Writing: Fewer versus Less

“Fewer” and “less” – I often see these two words used interchangeably. While they both have to do with amounts and numbers, they should not be sued as exact synonyms of each other. “Fewer” is used for plural nouns, and “less” is for singular nouns.

Here’s what I mean:

Fewer

“The lake was empty today – I saw fewer than ten boats all day.”

Boats is plural, and so the plural modifier of “fewer” should be used.

A way to remember this is to use the word “few” with the noun you’re wanting to modify. Would you say “There are a few boats on the lake today”? Yes – therefore, “fewer” is the correct choice rather than “less.”

Less

“We got less snow this winter than we did last year.”

The word snow, though it can be a collective or mass noun, is singular.

If you were to use “snowflakes,” however, the modifier would be “fewer,” because “snowflakes” is plural.

“Fewer snowflakes fell today than yesterday.”

“Less snow fell today than yesterday.”

In everyday usage, “less” is used for everything. Ever go to a supermarket and see the “10 items or less” express lane? Items is plural, so “fewer” would be the accurate word to use in these signs.

But as I like to remind readers – despite these grammar police posts that I do periodically, I understand that everyday conversational English is not the same as proper written English. If you’re chatting with a friend and you say something about “less emails,” don’t stress about it.

However, if you’re writing an article or a school paper or giving a public speech, check your nouns before you choose your quantitative modifier.

Remember, less is more.

And proofread so you have fewer mistakes.