• 3-minute read
  • 25th September 2014

Word Choice: Fewer vs. Less

It doesn’t look good to use ‘less’ when you should be using ‘fewer’. For example, where once the checkout signs at a popular supermarket read ‘Ten items or less’, after multiple complaints from grammar purists, the signs have been changed to say ‘Up to ten items’.

It is considered a bit informal to use ‘less’ when you should use ‘fewer’. And since the rule concerning how these terms are used is fairly simply, it is easy to avoid this error.


The word ‘fewer’ is a comparative used to mean ‘a smaller number of’. You should use fewer if you are discussing things or people which can be counted individually, as in the sentences:

Fewer students are now choosing to study grammar.

There are fewer than forty Amur leopards left in the wild.

Both ‘students’ and ‘leopards’ are plurals, but each is also a countable noun (i.e. you could count each individual separately). Consequently, ‘fewer’ is the correct term to employ here.


The word ‘less’ is also a comparative, but it means ‘a smaller quantity of’. It should therefore be used when referring to something which can be quantified but not counted.

Water is a good example, as a large amount of water cannot be divided into individual ‘waters’. Rather, ‘water’ is treated as an undifferentiated whole. As such, we could use ‘less’ in a sentence like this:

There is less water in that bucket than in the Atlantic Ocean.

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The Exceptions

The most important exceptions to the rules set out above are measurements of time, distance, weight or volume. This is because, although technically countable (e.g. a distance of ‘five miles’ is five times one mile), measurements are treated as single, undifferentiated wholes.

For example, since ‘five years’ is treated as a single period of time, the correct term for describing a shorter period of time is ‘less’:

She lived in Italy for less than five years.Correct

She lived in Italy for fewer than five years.Incorrect

Another example is money: we could say we have ‘fewer than five pound coins’ in our wallet since pound coins are individual things, but we’d say ‘less than five pounds’ if referring to the value of the money as a single amount.

A simple way to think about it is that ‘fewer’ means ‘not as many’, whereas ‘less’ means ‘not as much’.

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