Let’s say you’re living the dream and writing a chapter of word problems for a grade school math textbook. You’ve got a girl named Mandy who has sixteen apples. You’ve got a guy named Frank who has four fewer apples than Mandy.

Wait. Is it four fewer or four less?

Let’s discuss, shall we?

Fewer vs Less

Are Less and Fewer Interchangeable?

Less and fewer are often portrayed as interchangeable in the blogosphere, but although they both mean the opposite of more, I can assure you that they are not the same.

When to Use Fewer

Fewer is used in the context of nouns that you can count. You can have fewer spoons, fewer shoes, and fewer books than your roommate.

Mandy has a lot of apples, but she has fewer oranges than Frank.

When to Use Less

Less is used in the context of mass nouns. You can have less carpet, less clothing, or less Gatorade than your cousin.

She’s sad because when they juice their oranges, she’ll have less juice to drink.

Fewer vs. Less: Errors in the Wild

That classic ten items or less sign in the grocery store? It’s wrong. You know that it’s wrong because while you’re waiting in line, you’re counting the items that the person in front of you is unloading onto the belt, and if you can count them, it should be fewer.

Where else have you seen blatant fewer vs. less errors? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Write about “That Person” in the ten items or less line.

Maybe That Person is your protagonist. Maybe he or she is behind this annoying human being, or maybe he or she’s observing the chaos from the safety of another lane. Describe the contents of That Person’s cart using less and fewer correctly.

Take fifteen minutes (or fewer) to tell the story. When you’re done, post your practice in the comments, and take some time to comment on your fellow writers’ work.

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she’s not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.