The Grammarphobia Blog

When fewer is less

Q: You’ve written more than once about your preference for “less” over “fewer” in referring to percentages. In a recent comment on the New York Times’s After Deadline blog, Philip B. Corbett takes the opposing view. Your guidance feels better to me, but are you in the minority or the majority?

A: We disagree with Corbett, the Times’s associate managing editor for standards. We think the reporter, Lizette Alvarez, was right to use “less” instead of “fewer” in this sentence on Jan. 20:

“In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals.”

Although “fewer” is generally used for a smaller number of individual things, and “less” for a smaller quantity of one thing, there are many exceptions.

As we’ve said before on the blog, including posts in 2008 and 2009, “less” is more appropriate than “fewer” when percentages are involved.

We’re in the majority on this. Many usage authorities believe that percentages, like fractions, suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says it’s better to think of a percentage as a collective mass noun than as something that’s been counted.

As Bryan A. Garner writes: “Most percentages aren’t whole numbers anyway. And even if it were a toss-up between the two theories [collective mass noun versus countable noun], it’s sound to choose less, which is less formal in tone than fewer.”

Here’s what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has to say:

“In present-day written usage, less is as likely as or more likely than fewer to appear in a few common constructions. One of the most frequent is the less than construction where less is a pronoun. The countables in this construction are often distances, sums of money, units of time, and statistical enumerations, which are often thought of as amounts rather than numbers.”

Finally, in Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, she recommends using “less than (not fewer than) with percentages and fractions: Less than a third of the graduates showed up for the reunion.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

­