Why is the ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ thing important?

Posted on September 3, 2019


One sure way to find out whether or not someone is a stickler for grammar is to say something to them like “I’ve got less commitments than you” or “there are less people living in Scotland than England”. A keen grammarian will point out that you don’t mean ‘less’, you mean ‘fewer’.

This rule might be seen by some as a piece of pedantry that only exists to give bookish nerds a sense of superiority over the average English speaker, but are there times when it’s actually important to know the difference? Can your communication be confusing if you get it wrong?

What is the rule?

Let’s start by explaining what the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ is. Both words are used to indicate a lower amount or quantity of something, but which one you should use depends on what that ‘something’ is.

For something that can be seen as a mass, such as a liquid, distance or feeling, use ‘less’. This means “there’s less water in this lake” and “I feel less anxiety than I used to” are correct.

However, for countable nouns (i.e. items you can count one by one), you should use ‘fewer’, as in “there are fewer cars here than last week”.

Some nouns can be both mass and countable, meaning you should say “there’s less chocolate in this bar”, but “there are fewer chocolates in this box”.

Why does it matter?

It may not be grammatically correct to say “there are less cars here than last week”, but the meaning is still pretty clear, so why get so worked up about it?

Well, occasionally, you do come across a sentence where less/fewer misuse causes ambiguity. This is because ‘less’, when used before an adjective, means ‘not as’, as in “I am less interested in football than I used to be.”

Bearing this in mind, consider the difference between the two sentences below:

“New Zealand has less poisonous snakes than Australia.”

“New Zealand has fewer poisonous snakes than Australia.”

The use of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ gives the two sentences different meanings. The first is saying that the poisonous snakes in New Zealand are not as poisonous as the ones in Australia, whereas the second is saying that New Zealand doesn’t have as many poisonous snakes.

The difference is small, but important. The first sentence could actually mean that New Zealand has the higher number of poisonous snakes, but Australia’s are more poisonous.

Communicate clearly

Websites are taken more seriously, and seen as more authentic, if they use English well, whereas one of the main giveaways of a bogus or scam website is poor spelling and grammar. At Engage Web, we only use trained, English-speaking writers, and all content goes through an experienced team of editors to make sure the quality is as high as it needs to be for your site to be seen as an authoritative and reputable source.

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.
John Murray
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  • Casey Jamieson says:

    Ooo. Thank you for this, John. This will certainly help me when it comes to writing in a more grammatically correct way. =D

  • No problem, Casey. Hopefully it will help you make fewer grammatical mistakes!

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