Just as many people have trouble differentiating between affect and effect, a common error concerns the difference between less and fewer. It certainly doesn’t help that “respected” organizations like Walmart and Safeway make mistakes with less and fewer all the time, further exacerbating the prevalence of bad grammar.

Do you know the difference between less and fewer? Do you know why the express checkout lane at supermarkets should read “10 items or fewer” rather than the much more common “10 items or less“? Is it more correct to say that you should wear less clothes or fewer clothes?

You Can Count with Fewer

Generally speaking, you would use “fewer” when you are referring to items that are quantifiable. For example, you could say that I had fewer correct predictions in Week 8 than I did in previous weeks in the NFL. You could also say that Beyond the Rhetoric has fewer RSS subscribers than John Chow dot Com. The number of predictions and the number of RSS subscribers can be counted pretty easily.

You Don’t Count with Less

On the flip side, “less” is used when referring to items that either cannot be counted or are typically not counted. For instance, you could say that using Purolator Courier results in less customer satisfaction than using Fedex. You wouldn’t count the number of “customer satisfactions” when making this comparison.

Where it gets a little more confusing is when you start looking at items that can be counted, but we still use the word “less” rather than “fewer”. A great example of this is rice. You would say that Stephen ate less rice than Ed and not that Stephen ate fewer rice than Ed. While it is possible to quantify the amount of rice consumed (number of grains, amount of weight, etc.), we still use “less” and not “fewer”.

A Simple Test to Choose Between Less and Fewer

I have a very simple test that can help you determine whether it is more appropriate to use “less” or “fewer”. If the noun “sounds right” with a number, then you should probably use “fewer”. If the noun “sounds wrong” with a number, then you should probably use “less.”

Going back to the example of rice, it sounds incorrect to say that Leo has three rices. It would sound correct, however, to say that Leo has three bowls of rice. “Bowl” is quantifiable and can be associated with a number. “Rice” cannot. This is the same reason why you would say that Julie has less money than Jane, but Julie has fewer dollars than Jane.

Make sense? If you have any questions concerning the difference between less and fewer, feel free to ask me through the comment form below. Do you understand now why express checkouts at supermarkets should use “10 items or fewer” now? This may make them sound like elitists though, so that’s why some markets now have signs that read “up to 10 items” instead.