Home » Well Grammared » Less Vs. Fewer

Less Vs. Fewer

I’ll admit it: I’m a grammar nazi.

One of the things I’m a grammar nazi about is “less” and “fewer.’

People are constantly using them wrong and it drives me crazy!  I hear things such as “We have less buns than hamburgers” and “I got less turns than he did!”  I hear “less” when “fewer” should be used, but not “fewer” when “less” should be used.  In general, only people who actually know the difference every use “fewer.”

So which one should you use?  There is a simple rule to keep it straight: fewer French fries, less mashed potatoes.  Basically, if you can have one of something (you can count it), use “fewer”.  If you can’t have just one, you can only have some,  (you can’t count it), use “less.”

Things you can have “fewer” of:

  • Tests
  • Hours
  • Assignments
  • Friends
  • Spoons
  • Shoes
  • Sandwiches

Things you can have “less” of:

  • Homework
  • Time
  • Stress
  • Fun
  • Silverware
  • Shoe polish
  • Mayonnaise

You get the idea.  (At least, I hope you do!)

I think some of the confusion may come from the opposite word to less and fewer, which is “more.”  Whether you have hamburgers or mayonnaise, if you want some more, you ask for it in the same way.

Now that you know the difference between “less” and “fewer,” you too can feel irritated every time you hear someone using the wrong word.  Hooray for education!

 

Advertisements

9 Comments

  1. Mikey G says:

    When it comes to grammar Nazis I am reminded of Holden Caulfield speaking about bad writers in “Catcher in the Rye”:

    “That’s something else that gives me a royal pain. I mean if you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas. Stradlater was always doing that. He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place.”

    I am also reminded of how in “The Little Prince” there is the little story of the Turkish astronomer who was ignored when he had dressed in traditional Turkish attire but later was applauded when saying the same thing except with Western attire.

    I am also reminded of a line from the song “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” that says “Sometimes I don’t talk right/ But do you know what I mean?”

    Early in my undergraduate work I had thought to pursue an education in communication with an emphasis on listening… but then learned (to my dismay) that listening was not a subject covered in the field of communication.

    All of this to say that an emphasis on grammar presupposes that the form of the communication is more important (or even nearly as important) as the content of the message. There is also an assumption that the weight of responsibility in being understood ought to be carried by the speaker and the listener has no responsibility other than to passively receive messages.

    It is rare (I might go so far as to say unheard of) that grammar nazism is used when there is actual uncertainty about what is attempting to be said but rather is an attempt to make someone “sound right” or puff the ego of the “smart person.”

    • Language is a glorious and amazing thing! The only reason I am a grammar nazi at all is that I love grammar so much. (I really mean a lot – my husband thinks I’m crazy to get so passionate about it.)

      That said, I agree with you on most points, but I find that most people who dismiss me as someone who is just trying to sound like a “smart person” often don’t actually want to communicate in a meaningful way; they just want to hear themselves talk.

      I think there is a happy medium between the importance of the form of the message and the message itself. Grammar exists for a reason; it allows us to communicate with one another. Errors here and there are natural and shouldn’t diminish the message, nor does it mean that the person who wrote it isn’t “smart.” But I’ve seen plenty of posts online that I honestly couldn’t understand because of poor grammar and spelling. At some point we simply must demand that people learn English properly.

      • Miley Gee says:

        When you say all of that I agree with you. But if memes are any indication you’re well thought out love of language and clear communication is a minority position.

  2. Great post, and remember ‘sometimes less is more’
    Bart

  3. Michael says:

    Where does this rule originate? the root of both words means ‘small’

  4. M says:

    This isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s a style point, and doesn’t apply to all cases. It was first suggested in the late 1700s by an enlightenment gentleman, Robert Baker in Reflections on the English Language, who wanted English to have a more formal structure like Latin.

What do you think about it?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: