Fewer vs. Less

the-difference-between-fewer-and-lessQ: I always thought “fewer” and “less” meant the same thing, but a friend told me I was wrong. What’s the difference?—Anonymous

Many people believe “fewer” and “less” are interchangeable, but that’s not true. While both words signify a smaller quantity of something, each has a more specific use.

“Fewer” emphasizes number and modifies plural nouns, as in a smaller number of persons or individual items. Fewer than 20 parents attended last night’s PTA meeting. I have fewer strikeouts than anyone on my softball team.

“Less” focuses on matters of degree, bulk or quantity. It often modifies collective nouns, mass nouns and nouns denoting an abstract whole. I asked our former managing editor, Maria Witte, for an example, and she said, “The more you bug me, Brian, the less respect I have for you.” Respect is measured in degrees, so “less” fits.

When examining a sentence, think of it in terms of individual items vs. quantity. I had less than $20 in my wallet (a quantity). I had fewer than 20 one-dollar bills in my wallet (individual items). Once you understand the definitions, you’ll waste less time and have fewer problems with the issue (Hey, that’s a good mnemonic device to remember the difference!).

PET PEEVE ALERT: Never, under any circumstances, use “fewer in number” or “fewer number of people.” It’s redundant and unnecessary. “Fewer people” works just fine.

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5 thoughts on “Fewer vs. Less

  1. jotokai

    “Now there’s two less lonely people in the world.” I wonder, does he mean that they are still lonely— only less so? Now I notice, above, that “less” refers also to quantity. So that means, he could have said two fewer lonely people- but saying “less lonely people” might also be correct?

    I guess since he’s not going to change it, I can be happy he might be right.

    1. kwrite

      Even after reading the article I didn’t completely understand until I read your comment, yehudit45. You must be one heckuva good teacher. Thank you.

  2. adougherty

    Though it doesn’t work in every case the general guideline I was taught [mumble] years ago in grade school was if a word ended in “s” use fewer else use less (e.g. “I had less pie than Jake but he had fewer pieces of candy .”)


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