The Grammarphobia Blog

More about less

Q: I would like to know the rules for when to use “less” as distinguished from “fewer.” And is there a mnemonic for this?

A: The traditional rule has been that we use “fewer” for things we can count (“fewer cookies”), and “less” for quantities we can’t count (“less milk”).

But “less” is also used in cases like these (I’m supplying links to blog entries I’ve written on the subject):

(1) With “one” (as in “one less case on the docket”).

(2) With fractions (“less than one-quarter of the students”).

(3) With percentages (“less than 10 percent of the puppies”).

(4) With mass measurements involving money (“less than $10″), time (“less than two weeks”), distances (“less than five miles” … “less than ten yards”), weights (“less than 150 pounds”), and measurements of degree (“less than 50 miles an hour” … “less than 30 degrees” … “less than 18 decibels”).

In addition, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “less” is sometimes used in the phrases “no less than X” (as in, “no less than 20 people were arrested”) or “X words or less” (as in “25 words or less”).

I don’t recommend “no less than 20 people,” but I think “25 words or less” is an acceptable idiom.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) goes even further than American Heritage, and states: “Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing.”

Well, “less” may have history on its side, but not modern English usage – at least not yet.

If Merriam-Webster’s is right, though, we’ll be seeing less of “fewer,” and using it fewer and fewer times. And that’s the best mnemonic device I can think of right now.

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