Word Confusion: Less versus Lest

Posted December 10, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Lest ye screw up and use less than your wits, KD Did It brings thee thy latest word confusion.

Ooops, did I forget to tell you we’re exploring less versus lest today? My bad. I’m actually not too worried about writers confusing less and lest as the latter is a formal, somewhat archaic word. What does worry me is a writer using lest incorrectly when trying to be “fancy” in one’s writing.

I have no problem being fancy…I’d be a hypocrite if I did!…and I do prefer galloping along in my reading, without those hesitations because someone used the wrong word, ahem. So lest you forget, be sure to check any words you don’t use on a regular basis. We wouldn’t want you to have less of a reading audience because of poor word choices.

Consider the following:
…keeping her lips clamped tight less she blurt out she loved him…

She’s either not keeping her lips clamped as tightly as she could or she doesn’t want to tell him she loves him.

…keeping her lips clamped tight lest she blurt out she loved him…

She doesn’t want to tell the jerk she loves him.

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. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it. You may want to explore “Lessen versus Lesson” as well.

Less Lest
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

Cheese blintzes with blackberries

Image by Susánica Tam from Los Angeles, CA, United States (breakfast) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s less jam in the jar now that I spread some on the blintzes.

Protest march with one person holding up a sign that includes the words lest we forget

Image by JMacPherson (Flickr: Lest_we_forget) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We must remember our past, lest we forget why we have fought past wars.

Part of Grammar:
Adverb; Adjective; Determiner; Preposition; Pronoun; Suffix (-less) Conjunction
Use only with uncountable things — less money, less time.

With countable things, use fewer, as in fewer people, fewer words. See also the post on “Fewer versus Less“.

Uses subjunctive mood verb form, which is all about the possible, the wishful, the unreal, or the hypothetical and uses be (present tense) or were (past tense) with lest.
[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 nouns] Not having
    • Without
    • Free from
  • [From verbs] Not affected by or not carrying out the action of the verb
[Formal] With the intention of preventing something undesirable

To avoid the risk of

  • [After a clause indicating fear] Because of the possibility of something undesirable happening
  • In case
James the Less

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.

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.


She was worrying lest he was attacked.
She was worrying lest he be attacked.

He is using headphones lest he disturbs anyone.
He is using headphones lest he disturb anyone.

He spent whole days in his room, headphones on lest he disturb anyone.

She sat up late worrying lest he be held up on the way home.

We must remember history lest we forget.

They were afraid to press charges lest they arouse the gang’s ire.

Mary was hesitant to speak out lest she be fired.

I ask that you be dignified lest you laugh.

I ask that Shelly refrain lest she weep.

Roger recommended that Larry be on hand lest they lose control of the catboat.

History of the Word:
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. First known use: before 12th century

Old English thȳ lǣs the meaning whereby less that, later the læste.

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