English learners and native English speakers have problems with the words “fewer and less.” Fewer and less are the opposite of more: it is confusing to have TWO words as the opposite of another word!
Fewer vs. Less in English
How are “fewer” and “less” different?
The rules for fewer vs. less in English are actually quite simple.
Fewer = not as many
Less = not as much
Note: “fewer” and “less” are often used to compare two things. You will often see these words followed by “than” to show how they compare two things.
We use fewer with countable nouns.
- I took fewer English classes than my sister did.
- Tom ate fewer candies than Sarah did.
We use less with uncountable nouns.
- I drank less water today than I did yesterday.
- We ordered less wine at dinner than we normally do.
How do I know if a noun is countable or uncountable?
Countable nouns have different singular and plural forms.
- One dog
- Two dogs
- One flower
- Two flowers
Uncountable nouns do not have different forms for the singular and plural.
- I drank a lot of milk. (not “milks”)
- We bought some furniture yesterday. (not “furnitures”)
- You need to add more flour to the cake. (not “flours”)
Uncountable nouns also are broken into pieces or portions.
- A glass of milk
- A piece of furniture
- A cup of flour
To learn more about countable vs. uncountable nouns, read our article.
Exceptions for using fewer vs. less
There are some times that we make exceptions with the rule about fewer vs. less and countable/uncountable nouns.
Less vs. fewer exception #1: Money
“Money” is typically an uncountable noun.
- I am making more money at my new job.
- How much money do you think we will spend on lunch today?
However, we tend to us “less” with the word “money” and all of its forms (“change,” “dollars,” etc.).
- I have less money than I expected.
- This dress cost a lot less money than most of my other dresses, but I love it more than the others.
- Since I started using a debit card, I have less change in my pockets.*
- We have to spend $50 less on groceries now that we paid for all of our bills.
*In this example, we do not use “than.” However, it is implied. (The person has less change in his/her pockets than he/she did before getting a debit card.)
Less vs. fewer exception #2: Time
“Less” is also more commonly used with time. Like money, the concept of time can also be broken into smaller pieces: hours, minutes, seconds.
- I’ve lived here less time than my neighbors.
- In the future, I think you should bake the cookies for 5 minutes less. They’re a bit burned.
- We need to help the company employees spend less time on some of their daily responsibilities, like reports. Then they can spend more time helping customers.
Less vs. fewer exception #3: Weight
As with money and time, the concept of weight has measurable units that are countable nouns. However, we use “less” with weights.
- I weigh less now than when I was 15. Isn’t that crazy?
- Babies actually weigh less after they are born. They lose some weight in the first days of life.
- We need no less than 250 grams of sugar in this recipe.
Less vs. fewer exception #4: Percentages
Using “less vs. fewer” with percentages is a little more difficult. To determine which word to use, we must first identify what the percentage is of, and see if that thing is a countable or uncountable noun.
- _________ than 50% of marriages end in divorce.
- _________ than 20% of employees thought they were being paid enough money.
- _________ than 40% of Americans drink every day.
In these cases, the nouns are countable. We can count the number of marriages (it would be a lot, but we can still count them!) We can also count the employees and the number of Americans these sentences are referring to. Therefore, we should use “fewer.”
- Fewer than 50% of marriages end in divorce.
- Fewer than 20% of employees thought they were being paid enough money.
- Fewer than 40% of Americans drink every day.
We use “less” when we cannot enumerate (put into numbers) the percentage we are referring to.
- It seems like you put about 30% less effort into your exercise this morning.
- There will be 30% less sunshine tomorrow.
- I feel about 50% less motivation from this new boss.
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