Fewer or Less?
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.
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
- She makes less than $40,000 a year.
- Less than 2% of the population has celiac
- 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
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