Less is More – or Should it Be Fewer?

I love words. As a copywriter it kind of goes with the territory but I really do think words are great. This marvellous language of ours is peppered with grammar rules so it’s by no means easy or straightforward to use the right word in the right context (and spelled the right way) every single time.

As a logophile, I genuinely enjoy reading about language and grammar and coming across words new to me. (A go-to bedtime read is Lynne Truss’ ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’.) Where some people enjoy maths, I enjoy English. If I can help share that love, or at least demystify it for others, that’s even better.

Given the wide variety of options and variations in speech and the written word, it’s no real surprise that errors creep in. Think ‘bought vs brought’ or ‘should of vs should have’ (my pet peeve). We were probably taught grammar at school, but sometimes a little reminder as to why and when to use certain words never hurts.

One example is ‘less vs fewer’, which are often confused.

It’s not difficult to see why they are often mixed up, although it’s not as if the two sound alike or can be contracted in a similar way. But they do both mean the opposite of more and we know one of them must be used when we’re stating that something is in or of a smaller quantity or amount. So which do you use when? It’s quite straightforward really.
If you can count the noun you’re describing, use fewer. Fewer = not as many
If you can’t and it’s a fixed or singular item, use less. Less = not as much

 

Some examples;

  • There are fewer children
  • I am using less paint
  • It is raining less today so there are fewer raindrops: we’re talking about the rain as an entity and the raindrops as individual items.
  • Since the ban on plastics, I have used fewer bottles of water (we can count the bottles of water)
  • Since the ban on plastics, I have used less water (we can’t count the water)
  • I have less money today because I have fewer coins in my purse (the money is a single unit whilst the coins are separate and countable)

If we’re talking about time, we would say less than two years, not fewer than two years, because we are not referring to the individual years, but to a single period or unit of time lasting two years.

When it comes to percentages, it still depends on whether the item is countable. So ‘fewer than 10% of the UK’s cars’ is correct as the cars could feasibly be counted. And ‘I have finished less than 40% of the wine’ is also correct as the wine can’t be counted. (There may be a link here between my wine consumption and lack of coins in my purse.) As above, use ‘fewer’ with percentages of countable nouns and ‘less’ with percentages of uncountable nouns. Still with me?

So a supermarket sign reading ‘10 items or less’ should actually be ‘10 items or fewer’. Or to keep it simple, ‘Up to 10 items’. And keeping it simple is what copywriting is all about. We want to keep the reader engaged, interested and coming back for more. Not less. And definitely not fewer!

With special mention to the marvellous Elaine for her sense and sanity check!

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