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Wisdom from the Grammar Goddess: The Appropriate Use of Less and Fewer

By Diane Sandford, Published on August 30, 2003
Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office
of Fried, Frank, Harris Shriver & Jacobson. She has many years of experience
in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

After watching a particularly annoying television commercial for a new local bank that promised less paperwork to set up an account, less time to process transactions, and less lines at the counter, I realized that many of us do not understand the appropriate use of less and fewer.  In the bank commercial, grammar fell victim to a misguided attempt for consistency in sentence structure. 

It’s difficult to master the subtleties of English and, in particular, the fine distinction between fewer and less.  Even some well-respected authors have had trouble with it. When the late Isaac Asimov, author of more than 400 science and science fiction books, was asked if he followed the fewer/less rule, he told the editors of the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage that he had never heard of it. 

So why is it important to commit this rule to memory when some notable writers aren’t familiar with the rule?  The answer is simple:  The grammatical misuse of less and fewer can be a jarring distraction.  Whether you’re writing a formal document or a simple email, keep your reader focused on the message by avoiding grammatical stop signs.

Rule:    Use fewer to describe countable things. Use less to describe uncountable quantities, collective amounts, and degree.  These terms are not interchangeable.

If you can substitute much as the modifier, then use less; if you can substitute many, use fewer.

Look at some examples: 

  • Fewer law suits result in less litigation
  • Although sand may be technically countable, no one ever does; hence, the less sand we find in our beach bag, the better.
  • The estate is valued at less than a million dollars. (Consider “a million dollars” a collective noun unless you plan to count specific dollar bills.)     

    And point of view can complicate the issue:

    Do I have fewer or less children than you? If children is an amount in my mind, then I should use less; if I mean children as a number of distinct individuals, then I should use fewer.

    Does Option A have fewer or less advantages than Option B?  If the advantages are fewer in number, use fewer.  If they are less in degree, then use less

    Nevertheless, these sentences are risky.  What was the author’s intent?  If the reader has the opposite interpretation in mind, then the author appears to have made a mistake—or worse, doesn’t know the difference.  Always look for possible misinterpretations of your word choice and, if necessary, recast the sentence to eliminate the ambiguity. 

    Who creates such rules?  This particular rule can be traced to Robert Baker, who in 1770 suggested that “No Fewer than a Hundred appears to be not only more elegant than No Less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper.”  Perhaps his remark had a significant influence on the grammar mavens of his age.  Perhaps others reached the same conclusion on their own.  Who knows?  But Baker’s suggestion is now a strict rule in most grammar books.  Even Strunk and White’s Elements of Style includes an elementary form of the rule.  If you’re interested in a more extensive discussion of less and fewer, you may wish to take a look at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

    Can you trust your ear when deciding whether to use less and fewer?  Probably not.  Unless you have good reason or expert justification, follow the rule (and keep some reference sources nearby).

    By the way, I’ve decided I’ll stick with my old bank. It offers fewer services, but is less grammatically offensive.

    Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.