You’ve probably heard the saying ‘less is more’. Well, sometimes less isn’t even less. Sometimes less is fewer.
It’s a common mistake that you’ll encounter daily, not only in casual conversation but also on the radio or TV and even in some high-profile advertising campaigns. If you’re confused about when to use fewer rather than less, don’t worry; you’re clearly not alone. Luckily, there’s a simple little rule that makes it easy to work out which word is right for each occasion.
When to use less
Generally, the word less applies to mass nouns. In other words, nouns that don’t have a definable quantity and normally don’t have a plural. Words like time, weight, happiness and energy are all good examples. If you can’t measure something with a number, then it’s a mass noun. For instance, you can’t say that eating a chocolate bar gave you five energy or ten happiness (although it probably gave you a lot of both of those things!).
When to use fewer
The word fewer applies to any nouns that can be counted and have a plural version, such as minutes, grams, and kilojoules.
Putting it into practice
On a day with less rain, there are fewer raindrops
If your drive to work takes less time, you waste fewer minutes
If a new job pays you less money, then you earn fewer dollars
When there is less gravel on the road, you encounter fewer stones
There’s always an exception
The exception to this rule is when you’re talking about the singular version of a noun. For example, when you buy your happy-making chocolate bar, the vending machine you purchased it from will have fewer chocolate bars left – or one less chocolate bar. In this case, ‘chocolate bars’ is plural, so you should use fewer. ‘Chocolate bar’ is singular, so you should use less.