In our extensive experience at Bloomsbury International we have noticed that one of our students’ biggest difficulties is when to choose less or fewer!
So here are some helpful tips to help you along the way:
- Countable vs uncountable
There is a very simple rule of thumb: we use both fewer and less in comparative sentences but fewer with countable nouns and less with uncountable nouns
- Lorna knows fewer celebrities than Fay (countable)
- Aidarous eats less chocolate than Warren. (uncountable)
This is supported by the idea that
- Fewer= Not as many (as) è → Lorna knows not as many celebrities as Fay (countable)
- Less = not as much (as) è → Aidarous eats not as much chocolate as Warren. (uncountable)
But what about:
- Simon writes to fewer/less people on Facebook
This is one of the most common mistakes English students make.
Is people countable and uncountable?
Well the answer is (drum roll)…… it’s an irregular countable noun: person (singular)/ people (plural).
- When less acts as a pronoun
- Olga eats less than Fay.
But what does Olga eats less of?
- Olga eats less (food) than Fay.
In this case, the noun Less refers to can be removed, but be careful: This only applies to less, and not fewer
Now, compare these two sentences, which one is correct?
- Olga reads fewer books than Fay.
- Olga reads fewer than Fay.
- Olga reads less than Fay.
Both a) and c) are correct and b) is incorrect as fewer cannot stand on its own without a noun.
- Fewer/less + of (before determiners)
Less and fewer are used with the preposition of before determiners (such as the, my, this) and pronouns.
- I wish Simon would spend less of his time playing computer games
- Do you still drink alcohol? No I drink less of it
- Are there a lot of pandas alive nowadays? No, there are fewer of them.
4. Less+ adj/adverb
Less is also used with adjectives and adverbs:
- Katie is less talkative than Xavier
- Xavier laughs less loudly than Katie.
5. Less and fewer with numbers and measurements
Less is also used with precise numbers such as distances, times, ages and money, despite the noun it refers to not being uncountable.
- Their engagement lasted less than 3 months. Not Their engagement lasted fewer than 3 months
- It weighs less than 200 kilograms.
- Covent Garden is less than 1 mile away from Bloomsbury International.
- He earns less than £20 a day
Fewer is use primarily with collective amounts of things.
- There were fewer than 10 types of tree can be found in Bloomsbury Park
- There were fewer than 100 people at Hodan’s party
However, it is generally true that most people would adopt to use less rather than fewer when describing the above categories.
- Strange but true
As always, English throws a spanner in the works and causes us to doubt when to use fewer or less.
This sentence is a prime example:
- All these items in this store are £10 or less
So far we have been lead to believe that we use less with uncountable nouns and fewer with countable ones, so it would be fair to say that as the quantifier refers to items (plural/countable noun) then the sentence is incorrect. But how many times have you seen this sentence in a supermarket. The Less vs Fewer debate continues….
Go to this website to find out what the real answer is: BBC News