Grammar-licious: Making Grammar Fun - January
Let’s dive into the pond with the less/fewer differences. Less is used with mass nouns and fewer is used with count nouns.
A mass noun, also considered an ‘amount word’, is something that is measured in bulk – clutter, water, snow, milk, syrup, etc. A count noun, also a ‘number word’, is something you can count – books, pens, cards, paperclips, oranges, etc.
Examples to follow:
There are ____ kids in class than on the roster.
Can you count kids? Yes. Use fewer.
There was _____ snow this year than last year, so the kids had _____ snow days to make up.
Can you count snow? No. Use less. Can you count days? Yes. Use fewer.
____ grapes to eat [Can you count them? Yes.]
____ flour to bake with [Refers to bulk as written. Cups of flour can be counted.]
____ frozen meals to thaw [Can you count them? Yes.]
____ tomatoes to slice [Can you count them? Yes.]
____ orange juice [Refers to bulk as written. Cups of juice can be counted.]
____ coffee to make [Refers to bulk as written. Cups of coffee can be counted.]
____ cups of lemonade [Can you count them? Yes.]
____ water in the lake [Refers to bulk as written. Gallons of water can be counted.]
____ fish for dinner [Can you count them? Yes.]
____ clutter on the table [Refers to bulk as written. Piles of clutter can be counted.]
Exceptions. There are always exceptions, aren’t there? Even though you can count hours, dollars, and miles, you want to use less.
We traveled less than twenty miles.
The reception lasted less than two hours.
We made an investment of less than a hundred dollars.
If you refer to individual units, then use fewer. Example: I have fewer than six state quarters.
You know how there’s usually a lane at the grocery store with the sign “10 items or less”? It sounds better than “10 items or fewer”, doesn’t it? “Less” is grammatically wrong because you can count items.
So, the general rule is: if you can count something, use fewer; if you can’t count it, use less.
This month’s recommended grammar book is: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty
I like finding ways to remember the ‘rules’ and hope you can find something helpful. It’s my hope the monthly grammar techniques and usage examples will make grammar a lot less frightening and potentially enjoyable (can you imagine?) for you.
If you have grammar topics you’d like to see covered, please leave a comment or contact me!
(originally published in TWC Spotlight for November, 2008)