Fewer or Less

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 18th, 2008 at 1:24 PM

When less is more

Fewer and less are constantly used incorrectly. One of the posher supermarkets used to have the sign ‘five items or less’ over its checkouts. Someone must have complained (it wasn’t me, honest) because they changed it to the correct ‘five items or fewer’.

So how do you know which is right? The general rule is: use fewer with plural nouns and less with singular nouns.

It’s usually less that’s used wrongly. That’s probably because it immediately sounds wrong when fewer is used incorrectly. For instance not many people would say ‘please put fewer milk in my tea’. However, it’s quite common to see or hear the mistake the other way around, for example:

‘There are less shoppers in town today’. It should be ‘there are fewer shoppers in town today’ because shoppers is of course plural.

However (there’s always however!) it would be wrong to say ‘we’ve got fewer than twenty miles to go’. That’s because twenty miles is a total and is therefore treated as singular rather than twenty individual miles.

The same would be true for a sum of money, for example ‘it cost less than £100’ is correct rather than ‘it cost fewer than £100’.

I read a good tip on avoiding the fewer/less mistake. Fewer indicates a smaller number. Less indicates a smaller amount or little. So next time you want to use less, try using little instead and see if it fits. If it doesn’t then you should be using fewer.

For example take the sentence about the shoppers. It’s a common mistake to write ‘there are less shoppers’ instead of fewer. However, step back and try the sentence with little. ‘There are little shoppers in town today’ sounds ridiculous… unless of course you’re in Lilliput.

Using Capitals | Apostrophes

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Hello. I'm Elaine, I'm a copywriter and this is my blog.

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