Less or Fewer?

It's easy if you can count

When it comes to correct word usage, the beautiful truth is that a few simple rules can go a long way toward developing your confidence in your writing and speaking. Why? Because if you commit to just a few simple rules, you’ll be right more of the time! Here’s one of those rules:

“Less” is for measurable amounts, like water, distance, grain, notoriety…

“Fewer” is for countable items, like cups or quarts, miles or kilometers, cans or pounds, posts or tweets…

It’s that simple.

·      A football team that makes fewer touchdowns will earn less acclaim.

·      A kindergartner can eat fewer Cheerios and use less milk.

·      A driver might drive fewer miles and burn less gas.

·      A teacher will consume less ink if she grades fewer papers.

·      A stenographer will experience less stress as she makes fewer mistakes.

·      A farmer might sell less grain if you buy fewer cans of corn.

·      You might develop less notoriety if people post fewer tweets about you.

"Less” is easy, isn’t it? You have no problem saying or writing “less.” But “fewer” kind of sticks in your craw, doesn’t it? It sounds funny. We all use the word “few” quite easily, but “fewer” sounds a little odd. (That’s probably because it fails to get its due, in that most people shun this perfectly fine word and just keep on with the “less” over and over.)

It’s easy to say a team made few touchdowns, isn’t it? But do you feel funny saying the losing team made fewer touchdowns? Well, let’s just get over that. It’s correct. If it can be counted, and there weren’t as many this time, then it’s fewer. The losing team did not make less touchdowns than the winners; they made fewer touchdowns. The stenographer (Is there still such a thing?) did not make less mistakes; she made fewer mistakes.

It’s just part of my ongoing effort to rescue those precious words that are falling by the wayside and, as such, are no longer at our disposal when we want to be clear, precise and nuanced in our communication.

So let’s take a poll: Do you find the word “fewer” awkward when you say it or write it? Are you willing to give it some renewed effort now? Will you let us know about your success in that endeavor?