Many people think that fewer and less are interchangeable, and may switch them around in speech without thinking. Don’t make this common grammar mistake in your essays and papers! Take a look at our simple explanation of the difference, and our easy trick to check that you’re using the right one.
Can You Count It?
If you’re referring to countable things, you should use fewer.
If you’re referring to something that isn’t countable–a singular mass noun–you should use less.
- Children are countable so there were fewer children in class today.
- Time isn’t countable so there was less time to prepare for the exam.
What is a Singular Mass Noun?
A singular mass noun refers to something that can’t be counted. For this reason it is also sometimes known as a non-count noun.
Tangible examples include things like money, rain, water, flour, wood and bread. Non-tangible examples include concepts like time, advice and knowledge.
They differ to count nouns as you cannot add an S to them to create a plural–in fact, this noun type doesn’t usually have a plural form at all.
But I Can Count Money?
Don’t let this confuse you! It doesn’t mean that you can’t physically count something in the way you might count out dollars, for example. Just that the noun can’t be quantified by adding a number (and a plural S or IES) alone.
So you’d never say, “I have five money” or “I have five monies”.
Singular mass nouns can be quantified by adding extra words to them. For example:
- I have some money.
- I have six slices of bread.
- That’s a big pile of wood.
- There was a lot of rain.
- I gave him a piece of advice.
However, we wouldn’t say:
- I have five monies.
- I have six breads.
- That’s a big pile of seven woods.
- There were a hundred rains.
More Examples Please!
- Peter has fewer dollars than Steve.
- Peter has less money than Steve.
- Sarah has fewer sandwiches than Gemma.
- Sarah has less bread than Gemma.
- John cut fewer logs today. He has less wood to burn than yesterday.
- We had fewer storms and less rain this winter.
- The class had fewer ideas on Monday. It seemed like they had less knowledge of that subject.
Hopefully you now have more of an understanding of the difference between fewer and less. Remember, if in doubt – count!
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