Word Confusion: Fewer versus Less

Posted May 20, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 17 February 2018

It’s a question of count versus mass. If you can count how many — vacuum cleaners, apples, werewolves, quilts, etc. — it’s a countable noun, which reliably indicates if there are fewer.

Looking at bolts of fabric at a fabric store, at bins of screws and nails at the hardware store, the clutter on top of your desk (and you can see if it’s less of a mess than usual, *grin*)— these are all mass (or uncountable) nouns.

Mignon Fogarty at Quick and Dirty Tips also notes that mass nouns aren’t plural, as in you wouldn’t say clutters, but clutter, furniture and not furnitures.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Fewer Less
Credit to: Karen’s Linguistic Issues; Quick and Dirty Tips has some nice examples and tips to tell the difference between countable nouns (fewer) and mass nouns (less).

Cars at a URA car park

“Cars at a URA Car Park” is ProjectManhattan’s own work under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Creag Leathan from Glen Feshie car park.

“Creag Leathen from Glen Feshie Car Park” by Elliott Simpson is under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are six fewer cars in the bottom parking lot.

A comparison photo of a males chest waxing

“Chest Waxing” by vanz is a derivative work by Beao under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, he does have less hair on the right.

Part of Grammar:
Comparative form of few, which may itself be an adjective or a pronoun Adjective; Adverb; Preposition; Pronoun; Suffix
Used with words denoting people or countable things Used with mass nouns, denoting things that cannot be counted

Normally used with numbers and expressions of measurement or time

Adjective and Pronoun:
[A few] A small number of

Used to emphasize how small a number of people or things is

[Archaic] Of lower rank or importance

To a smaller extent

Not so much

  • [Less than] Far from
  • Certainly not

A smaller amount of

Not as much

Before subtracting something


A smaller amount of

Not as much

  • Fewer in number

Forms adjectives and adverbs from -less

  • [From nouns] Not having
    • Without
    • Free from
  • [From verbs] Not affected by or not carrying out the action of the verb
Grocery store signs should say: “Ten items or fewer”.

Not “Ten items or less.”

If you’d ask fewer questions…

He had fewer friends than Mabel.

Ask which products have fewer complaints.

I will recount fewer of the stories told me.

Many believe it but only fewer are prepared to say.

Fewer thought to challenge these assumptions.

Fewer of the titles released these days have any literary merit.

We have fewer members every year.

There are fewer than ten cars left.

Sadly, even fewer survived.

James the Less wasn’t much of a king.

You should eat less meat.

He listened less to the answer than to Kate’s voice.

That this is a positive stereotype makes it no less a stereotype.

Mitch looked less than happy.

The data was less than ideal.

Less than two weeks before vacation!

No matter how quickly we work, we seem to accomplish less.

The less time spent there, the better.

It will cost $900,000 less tax.

Storage is less of a problem than it used to be.

You’d better be ready in less than an hour.

It’s a city with a population of less than 200,000.

Diet food is usually flavorless.
It’s suggested that one eat chicken skinless.
I was lost in the fathomless depths of the story.
He was tireless in his attempt to reach the top.

Adjective, Determiner, Pronoun: few
Noun: few
Plural noun: the few
Adverb: least
History of the Word:
Old English fēawe and fēawa are from an Indo-European root shared by Latin paucus and Greek pauros meaning small. Old English lǣssa, is of Germanic origin and related to Old Frisian lēssa, from an Indo-European root shared by the Greek loisthos meaning last.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits

Ambiance apéro by ADT 04 from Digne les Bains, France, is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

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