The Grammarphobia Blog

Half truths

Q: I know “fewer” refers to something you can count and “less” to something uncountable. However, what do you say in a sentence like this: “Fewer [or “Less”] than half of the graduates are present today.” In this case, are you talking about the graduates or are you referring to the fraction?

A: Strictly speaking, as you know, “fewer” should refer to plural nouns (“fewer kittens”) and “less” to singular nouns (“less milk”). But a weakness of “fewer” can be seen with percentages and fractions.

Should we say “less than five percent of the people” or “fewer than five percent of the people”? “Less than half of the graduates” or “fewer than half of the graduates”?

The answer isn’t black and white. I think (and Garner’s Modern American Usage agrees) that in these cases “less” is better.

The phrase “half of the graduates” is closer to a collective mass noun than to a collection of individuals counted up. So I’d suggest “less than half of the graduates.”

There are intelligent arguments for “fewer,” but “less” would be my choice, since percentages and fractions suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

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