When do you use ‘less,’ and when do you use ‘fewer?’ Both mean similar things, but they have different uses based on whether the noun you are describing is countable or not.
10 Items or Less?
Sometimes at the grocery store, you will see a sign on the express lane saying it is only for customers with 10 items or less. And at other stores, it will say 10 items or fewer.So which of these grocery stores is grammatically correct? The confusion is caused because ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are both what are known as comparative adjectives. They describe nouns, like a typical adjective, but do so through showing comparison with something else. And both ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are used to show a smaller amount than the thing being compared to.
So, let’s look at them closely to determine if it should be ’10 Items or Less’ or ’10 Items or Fewer’.
The traditional rule that is often taught for the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ has to with countable nouns. This rule says that if you can count the noun being described, it is ‘fewer,’ but if you can’t, it is ‘less.’For example, you can count jelly beans, people, and dogs, so in these sentences you use ‘fewer:’
- There are fewer jelly beans in the jar than there were yesterday.
- The poorly-attended show had fewer than 20 people in the audience.
- Every time I clean my house, I realize that I need to own fewer dogs.
Meanwhile, you can’t count things like water, time, and homework, so you would describe these things with ‘less:’
- There is less water in the lake because of the drought.
- I have less respect for John after his outburst yesterday.
- Mr. Johnson gives less homework than Ms.
But wait, you may be thinking that you can count water. You can count how many gallons or liters of water you have in a particular area. This is where things get a little tricky.
Water is considered a non-countable noun because it is a mass noun, in which a quantity of something is treated as a singular, undifferentiated object.So the word ‘water’ is not countable because you cannot have one, two, or three waters. However, if you break into discreet units, like bottles of water, then it is countable and does take fewer:
- There are fewer bottles of water in the refrigerator than there were yesterday.
‘Homework’ works in a similar way, if you break it down into countable units of homework:
- Mr. Johnson gives fewer pages of homework reading than Ms. Grey does.
Time, Money, Distance, and Weight
Of course, this wouldn’t be English if there were not exceptions to the rule. And the countable noun rule generally does not apply when dealing with specific units of measurement for time, money, distance, and weight.So, while it is ‘fewer’ bottles of water, if you are discussing a formal unit of measurement like ‘gallons,’ it takes less:
- The lake has 100 less gallons of water than it did last year.
The same goes for measurements like dollars, hours, and miles:
- This shirt costs $10 less here than at the other store.
- I can run five miles in less than an hour.
- Google Maps showed me a route that is three miles less than my normal route.
So, with these rules in mind, let’s go back to the grocery store. ‘Items’ is a countable noun, because you can have one, two, or three items.
And it is not a distinct unit of measurement like gallons or miles. So ’10 Items or Fewer’ is the more grammatically correct phrasing.
‘Less and ‘fewer’ are both comparative adjectives used to show a smaller amount of something.
The general rule is to use ‘fewer’ for countable nouns that can be discreetly counted and ‘less’ for non-countable nouns. These non-countable nouns include mass nouns, like ‘water,’ that could be broken into countable units. An exception to this rule is for units of measurement for time, money, distance, and weight, like miles or pounds, which use ‘less’ even though they are countable.