“Fewer” vs. “Less”- Simple Tips to Remember

Last year’s drought has left the region with ________ food sources.

What should be used here? Fewer or less?

While both the words clearly convey the lack of abundance or sufficiency, choosing the right one is a challenge!

Well,  a popular rule-of-thumb offers some help.

If the noun being measured is countable, like bowls of rice or chocolate bars, use fewer.

  • We need to serve fewer bowls of rice.
  • The chef used fewer chocolate bars while making the cupcakes.

If the noun cannot be counted, like rice or chocolate, use less.

  • We need to serve less rice.
  • The chef used less chocolate while making the cupcakes.

Though this guideline appears to be an ultimate savior, the English language is full of nuances that cannot be ignored. Let us look at some exceptions that defy this rule.

Time, Money, Distance and Weight

All the four entities are countable in terms of their units (e.g., minutes, dollars, miles, pounds, kilograms). So, according to the rule, we must use fewer. However, we choose less when talking about time, money, distance or weight because they are thought of as amounts rather than numbers.

  • He makes less than $1000 a month from his business.
  • I have less than three years left for my next promotion.
  • The new resort is located less than 5 miles from here.
  • Most premature babies weigh less than 2.5 kg.

Using fewer instead of less in these examples should not be a problem, but it would make the sentence sound awkward to the reader. For instance, ‘Most premature babies weigh fewer than 2.5 kg’. Quite odd, isn’t it?

Percentage

While percentage itself is a representation of a measurement, using fewer or less depends on what’s being measured.

  • Fewer than 5% of the farmers opted for the new agricultural policy.

Counting the number of farmers is definitely not an easy task, but it sure is possible. Hence, when talking about percentages of countable things, we use fewer.

  • The sample contains less than 20% water as compared to the standard.

Here, water cannot be counted. So, for such percentages, we use less.

Importance in Academic writing

In academic writing, authors usually compare entities, properties, trends, or data using comparative adjectives like fewer and less. Hence, learning to correctly use these words is imperative.

Fortunately, the rules discussed above are all applicable in academic writing as well.

Let us see how.

Incorrect: The cells were less and smaller than those in the condylar cartilage.

Correct: The cells were fewer and smaller than those in the condylar cartilage.

Cells are very small biological units, but they are still countable. Hence, fewer is used for cells.

Incorrect: The difference was fewer significant for CR duration.

Correct: The difference was less significant for CR duration.

Significance cannot be counted but can be compared. So, less, and not fewer, is the correct word choice for comparing significance.

Now you know that fewer and less are among those rare English words that lay importance on how the sentence sounds and not just on a textbook rule! So trust your ears, practice regularly and move a step closer to error-free writing!

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