Fewer or Less?

Easy Hint to Know the Difference

By Annette Rey

Your writing is flowing. You’re sliding along like an oiled zipper. Then, darn, you hit a snag. A sentence you are constructing is posing a problem. You’re not sure which word to use. In this case, the words to choose from are fewer or less. Some writers move on and keep writing, planning to correct later. Some writers, like me, stop forward momentum and waffle with a word choice.

All writers can avoid either scenario by learning in advance which of these words to use. It’s a matter of memory and I have a hint for you.

Keep your writing flowing. Read on.

The best explanation for our current dilemma comes from the book Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale. Using my sentence creations, let’s look at fewer and less.

  • Since several people have cancelled their reservations for the meeting, will you be requiring (fewer or less) doughnuts and cookies?
  • Will (fewer or less) boys be attending camp this year?
  • The dogs are eating (fewer or less) snacks than usual.
  • Did you make (fewer or less) errors on your last test?
  • Since the laundry detergent seems to be lasting longer this season, I think we should buy (fewer or less) of it next time we shop.
  • Women today use (fewer or less) hair spray than women in the 1960s.

When you can count the number of items = use fewer.

When you cannot count the number of items = use less.

You can count doughnuts and cookies, boys, snacks, and errors. So, the first four sentences above require the word fewer.

Detergent and hair spray refer to a bulk item, not easily countable. The last two sentences require the word less. Other examples of this would be: less emotion, less peanut butter, less potato salad.

Another hint Ms. Hale gives is: If you use many with a word – many dogs, many bags of onions, many movies – use the word fewer with that same word.

  • Fewer dogs are being adopted.
  • The restaurant is buying fewer bags of onions.
  • Bob and Mary are seeing fewer movies this year.

If you can use much with a word – much anger, much dust, much rain – use less with the same word.

  • Bill is expressing less anger against Mabel.
  • The house has less dust since the furnace filter has been replaced.
  • We had less rain last spring.

My contribution to memory practice is:

C(ountable) + M(any) = F(ewer)  So, C + M = F

N(ot countable) + M(uch) = L(ess)  So, N + M = L

These can be shortened to: CMF and NML. Many people are helped by mnemonics like these. If you are not helped by mnemonics, just ignore these suggestions.

Enjoy writing and keep learning.







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