Common Grammar Mistakes: Fewer versus Less

Common Grammar Mistakes: Fewer versus Less. (By Jennifer Peyton from Flickr.)

So, for today’s grammar topic, I’m covering the difference between fewer and less.

Now, less and fewer pretty much mean the same thing—they both mean the opposite of more. So, what’s the problem?

Well, what differentiates these two is not their definition, but the types of nouns that they are used to describe. At its most basic, the rule is that you use less with mass nouns and fewer with count nouns.

Count nouns are, well, things that you can count. Whether they are books, pens, or Skittles, these are all things that can be counted individually. So, if you can count them, it’s a count noun which means it belongs with fewer, as in, “You should eat fewer Skittles.”

Mass noun, on the other hand, are nouns that describe things that can’t be counted individually. These can’t be pluralized– for example, rice, dust, or wool are all mass nouns, all words that can’t be made plural. Because these things can’t be counted individually, so they are described with the word less. For example: “If I had less dust in my house, I wouldn’t sneeze as much.” This clearly makes much more sense than “If I had fewer dusts in my house.” So, if you have difficulty pluralizing the word — the words clutter, leather, and cloth are more examples– then this signifies that it is a mass noun.

Sometimes, however, determining certain words as being either count nouns or mass nouns can be a bit confusing. For example, coffee or soda can be either count nouns or mass nouns depending on how they are referred to. For instance, if you are making coffee, it is a liquid that can’t be quantified– so, if the coffee pot overflows, you need to make less coffee next time. Yet, if you’re a barista making cups of coffee as a barista, you may need to serve fewer coffees if patrons decide to leave. Of course, the noun that is actually being count is the word cups — the cups are being counted, not the coffee itself– but, it is common to refer to a cup of coffee as just “a coffee” and so this distinction must be clear. Mass nouns (like coffee) can’t be made plural but, in this case, it can be made into a count nounI’ve made a mass noun plural, but in the process I transformed it into a count noun.

Another tricky noun is the word furniture; it isn’t immediately obvious whether it is a mass noun or a count noun. Like coffee, it is technically a mass noun, even though it can describe multiples of count nouns– there can be countable pieces of furniture, but furniture itself is a collective name for a mass of stuff. You could say, “There are too many places to sit; we need fewer couches,” but you would never say, “we need fewer furnitures.”

Of course, we can never be without exceptions. For instance, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance. Yes, they are quantifiable, but they require less rather than fewer: “The flight time is less than two hours so I hope to pay less than $350 per ticket.” But, aside from time, money, and distance, the rules I stated above remain the same.

So, now that we’ve gotten count nouns and mass nouns straightened out, let’s finish up by clarifying a very important fact: Most signs for supermarket express lanes are wrong. As you know, most of the signs for these lanes read, “10 items or less.” Now you know that these are grammatically incorrect and should instead read, “10 items or fewer.” Why? Because, of course, items are individual, countable things. As such, they are count nouns which means it uses the word fewer. Why this mistake is made in practically every grocery store and supermarket is beyond me but, at the very least, now you know the difference.


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