Let me paint the scene: You’re ready to check out at the grocery store. You have eight items in your cart, so you scan the horizon for the express lane. You see a sign that says “10 items or less.” Do you head for the register without a second thought? Or do you silently lament the decline of the English language because you were taught is should be “10 items or fewer?” Whether you’re person one or person two, this lesson’s for you.
In this week’s edition of our “Grammar Shape-Up” series, I speak to a very commonly missed rule. So misused, in fact, the mistake has rampantly infiltrated our language from top to bottom. Many people delivering the news recently have been getting this one wrong, but that doesn’t mean that you have to! Let’s chat about less vs. fewer.
According to usage rules, fewer is used when discussing countable things, while less is used for singular, intangible concepts or abstract nouns you cannot count in a 1-2-3 kind of way. For example, you can have fewer ingredients, crimes, or people, but less salt, hatred, or population. If you can count it, use fewer. If you can’t count it, opt for less.
My caveat for this rule is that saying less when you mean fewer isn’t confusing, so, therefore, it isn’t the worst mistake you could linguistically make. But, there is a place for fewer in this world and using fewer correctly sets you apart (see last week’s episode) from the lazy “less”-sayers.
The question you need to ask yourself: WHAT do you have less/fewer of? If you can count them — even if the number is very large or tough to compute — you must say fewer. If you cannot count (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) the noun, use less.
We’ve had fewer meetings during quarantine.
Why? You can count meetings.
We’ve spent less time in meetings during quarantine.
Why? Time is abstract in this case. It can’t be counted in a 1-2-3 sense.
We shower fewer times a week now.
Why? The noun here is times a day, and those CAN be counted, so this one has to be fewer.
We used to go through fewer cases of wine.
Why? You can count cases of wine.
We used to drink less wine.
Why? You can’t count wine in its liquid form. You can count bottles or barrels, but not wine.
ONE MISTAKE OFTEN SEEN
I tried calling you no less than 10 times last night. That is wrong. While this sounds correct (because it’s so misused), you can count the number of calls. It must be fewer. “I tried calling you no fewer than 10 times” is the correct way to get upset with your significant other.
AN ADDENDUM TO THE COUNTING RULE
One tricky part of this rule is when we talk about a distance, an amount of money, a length of time, or a weight. We treat these as singular nouns, even though they can often be counted. For example, we say:
Ten miles is too far for me to run. Not 10 miles are too far for me to run.
$3,000 is too much for you to pay me. Not $3,000 are too much for you to pay me.
Two pounds of okra is too much. Not 2 pounds of okra are too much.
Forty-five minutes is too long to wait for a table. Not 45 minutes are too long to wait for a table.
Therefore, distances, amounts of money, weights, and lengths of time can take less instead of fewer. Here are correct examples of this rule:
The destination is in less than two miles.
I am trying to spend less than $3,000 this month.
The baby weighed less than 8 pounds.
I can make that recipe in less than 2 hours.
I hope that this helps you make fewer mistakes and spend less time mulling over these pesky rules! It’s a great time to tone up our grammar. We’ll see you next week!
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