Count on these tips for reducing errors in quantifying quantities
By Dr. Nancy Tuten
We need to look no farther than the express check-out lane at many grocery stores to see a common example of this usage confusion: should the sign welcome patrons with “10 items or fewer” or “10 items or less”?
Keeping these two adjectives straight isn’t difficult once we understand the difference between them and recognize a few exceptions.
Fewer describes nouns that can be counted: We say “fewer people attended the meeting” and “the report contains fewer pages” because we can count people and pages. A brand of chips has “fewer calories,” not “less calories,” because calories can be counted.
Less describes nouns that cannot be counted: Food and beverage items will advertise “less calories” but should instead tout “fewer calories” (though fewer calories often result in less taste). We say that a certain beer is “less filling” or that we have “less water in the bucket” because filling and water cannot be counted. In both cases, we are talking about an amount, not a number.
Despite this modern-day distinction between less and fewer, Merriam-Webster’s points out that English speakers and writers have been known to use less for countable nouns as long as the language has been in existence.
Webster’s also notes that a few uses of less for countable nouns are widely accepted even today, such as in the expressions “an essay of 250 words or less” and “one less worry.” More often we hear “one less thing to worry about.” Very few of us would say “one fewer worry” or “one fewer thing to worry about,” especially in informal situations.
Somewhere along the way, the idea that we should use fewer for countable nouns took hold, and now most style books advocate the use of fewer to mean “not as many” and less to mean “not as much.”
Which word, less or fewer, is the better choice in front of these words?
- ______ mistakes on the test
- ______ deductions on his tax return
- ______ room for error
- ______ cause for alarm
- ______ money
- ______ dollars
- ______ time
- ______ days
- ______ problems
- ______ headaches
Answers: fewer = 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 10