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Fewer vs. Less

What's the difference between fewer and less? Here's a simple explanation to help you use both correctly.

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

(Grammar Rules for Writers.)

A: 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.

Fewer vs. Less

“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.

Grammar and Mechanics

Do you remember the difference between the 8 parts of speech and how to use them? Are you comfortable with punctuation and mechanics? No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first step to having a successful writing career.

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