less vs. fewer

Ever get confused about whether to use “less” versus “fewer” in a sentence? Well, you’re in luck. Today we’re going to talk about how these words differ and when to use each one in a sentence.

To talk about the difference between “less” and “fewer,” we need to talk about the difference between two categories of nouns: count nouns and mass nouns.  Count nouns are just what their name suggests – they’re nouns that can be counted (i.e., we can place numbers like “one” or “three” in front of them). Examples of count nouns include “apples,” “beaches,” and “cities.” We can say that we have “one apple” or that we visited “five cities,” and these pairs of words make perfect sense.

In comparison, mass nouns are nouns that can’t be counted. This means that we can’t place numbers in front of them. Examples of mass nouns include “water,” “air,” and “money.” Although we can measure the volume of water in a bottle or count the amount of cash we have in our wallet, it doesn’t sound right to say that we have “one water” or “eight monies”; these combinations of words just don’t sound right. Note that sometimes it seems like we’re able to place a number in front of a mass noun (e.g., “Can we have three waters?”). In these cases, though, what looks like a mass noun is really a count noun in disguise (e.g., “Can we have three glasses of water?”).

So what’s the link between “count nouns,” “mass nouns,” “less,” and “fewer”?  We use “less” when referring to mass nouns and “fewer” when referring to count nouns. Here are some examples (mass or count nouns are underlined):

  • “I have less money in my bank account than I thought I did.”
  • “We have even less time to complete the report.”
  • “The report contains fewer errors than expected.”
  • “I have fewer emails to respond to today.”

In essence, we use “fewer” when we want to say that we have less of something and that something can be broken up into discrete units (e.g., each apple, for example, is a separate object). We use “less” when we want to say that we have less of something and that something can’t be broken up into discrete units (e.g., water can be measured, but it can’t be broken down into separate objects).

Have any lingering questions about the difference between “less” and “fewer”? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate it into one of our upcoming posts.

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“Less” vs. “fewer”: What’s the difference?
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