Is it “Fewer” or "Less"? The Naughty Grammarian Explains
Who is Miss Grammers?
Allow me to introduce my alter ego (a second self; a different version of one’s self), Miss Grammers. The name was chosen, obviously, to play off of the word, “grammar.” However, Miss Grammers is making two additional allusions with this name.
Miss Grammers wishes to compare herself to Miss Manners, the doyenne (a woman who is the most respected or prominent person in a particular field) of etiquette because Miss Grammers endeavors to become the doyenne of grammar.
Miss Grammers also wishes the reader to think of the archetype (a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology) of "The Naughty Librarian," a woman who appears prim and proper, but who, on occasion, can kick back and kick ass.
Miss Grammers also endeavors to surprise and amuse. To that end, Ms. Grammers shall be a little bit naughty and use text more appropriate to a romance novel than a treatise (a formal written presentation that discusses a subject carefully and thoroughly) on grammar.
Miss Grammers has already been a little bit naughty, sneaking in a vocabulary lesson before she even gets to the main point.
Did Miss Grammers Have a Few Too Many?
When to Use “Fewer” and When to Use "Less"?
Miss Grammers must admit that she is very peeved that so many people misuse the word “less.” When she watches the news on TV, she is appalled by the number of presumably well-educated hosts and guests who do not understand the distinction between “fewer” and “less.”
Miss Grammers observes that people often use “less” when they should use “fewer.” The reverse is not an issue. People seldom use ‘fewer” when they should use "less.”
Fewer or Less
Use “Fewer” with Things That Can be Counted.
Use “fewer” when referring to something that can be counted (actually or theoretically). It is used with a concrete noun, a noun that denotes an actual thing. “Fewer “is usually correct when the noun is plural.
“Ever since Linda returned, Melanie had fewer chances to see Doug.” (Since the number of “chances” can be counted and “chances” is plural, it is incorrect to say “less chances.”)
Use “Less” with a Thing that Cannot Be Counted.
Use” less” when speaking of an abstract quality, a mass of something, or anything that cannot be counted. The noun is usually singular.
“Melanie thought she had less of a chance to win Doug’s affection since Linda had returned.” (In this sentence “chance” is used as an abstract noun and is singular, so “less” is correct.)
A Chart for Fewer and Less
Type of noun:
Singular or plural:
A quantity or a quality:
A Quantity--Things that can be counted
A Quality--Things that canot be conted
.Do we need fewer loves? (“Loves” refers to physical things or people.)
Do we need less love? ("Love" refers to an emotion.)
Are There Exceptions?
Miss Grammers regrets to inform you that there are some pesky exceptions.
Common usage allows for “less” to be used with units that denote measurements, distance, amount, or time. This is because the unit is considered to be a single bulk amount.
“Linda had returned less than two weeks ago and already Doug was less affectionate towards Melanie.“ (“Two weeks” is one amount of time.)
“Melanie and Doug stood less than six inches apart, but it might as well have been six miles.” (“Six inches” is one amount of space.)
Sex Gets Attention
What About Collective Nouns?
A noun that refers to a collection of things is still a singular noun and requires “less.” Miss Grammers mentions this because she wishes to be complete, but she cannot think of an instance when “fewer” was used in place of “less” with a collective noun.
“A traditional romance novel has fewer sex scenes than a modern romance novel.” (“Sex scenes” is plural and countable so “less sex scenes” is incorrect.)
“A traditional romance novel has less sex than a modern romance novel.” (The word “sex” in this sentence replaces ‘sex scenes” in the prior sentence, but it is a singular noun so the word "less" is correct.)
A Reference Book
An Example from Real Life
Miss Grammers was beginning to doubt whether or not anyone really needed her lesson about "fewer' and "less." Then Miss Grammers watched "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on July 23, 2014, and she heard Mr. Stewart say, "It takes less money and less people." Miss Grammers was gratified to see that she was indeed needed.
You did notice that Mr. Stewart should have said "fewer people." "Less money " is correct because it is a collective noun referring to currencies in the aggregate, but if Mr. Stewart had said "dollars", he would be correct to say "fewer dollars."
A Final Word
Miss Grammers hopes that she will see fewer instances of the incorrect use of “less” in the future.
And now Miss Grammers has a secret life to get back to.
As for you, you may stay after class and read some of my other posts. Check the related hubs below or just do a search for "The Naughty Grammarian."
Please take this little quiz to prove that you have learned when you must use use “fewer” and not “less.”view quiz statistics
Note on the Quiz
Did you notice that the correct answer to the quiz was always the alternative with “fewer.”
Miss Grammers had to do it that way because had she tried to use “fewer" incorrectly, the wrongness would be immediately obvious. For example: A) She had fewer hope now. B) She had less hope now.
Miss Grammers is quite confident that no one would have picked “She had fewer hope now.” If Miss Grammers had made the first alternative: “She had fewer hopes now”–using the plural-- then both answers would be correct. It would not be nice for Miss Grammers to trick you by making both answers correct, and Miss Grammers always wishes to be nice.
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Did the naughty grammarian help you learn something new?
© 2014 Catherine Giordano