Monday, June 23, 2014

Fewer or Less?


Dave from Traverse City, Michigan, asked about the proper use of less and fewer. It's a question that has come up before, but the last time I covered it in this blog was about 8 years ago. Since it is a frequent question on my radio program, I'll cover it again.

The general rule for the difference between less and few/fewer is this:

  • (1) Use few/fewer to describe things that can be counted—fewer cigarettes, fewer cars, fewer jobs.
  • (2) Use less to describe things that cannot be counted—less smoking, less traffic, less employment.
However, to be fair, in idiomatic English—and more and more in formal usage—less is being used with a plural noun denoting time, amount (including percentage), or distance:
  • There are less than two minutes to play in the game.
  • She makes less than $40,000 a year.
  • Less than 2% of the population has celiac disease.
  • We have less than three miles to go.
In other words, sometimes separate, countable elements (which would normally need the word fewer) are treated as an unbroken unit and the word less is then acceptable. Until the dust settles, play it safe and follow rules one and two above. But don’t be surprised to see the words used interchangeably; their use is in transition.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.





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