All of the usual English-language usage books seem so sure that they give little more than a compound sentence to explain that fewer should be used when referencing things that can be counted and less when referencing quantity or things that can be measured.
The AMA Manual of Style1 points out that the 2 words “are not interchangeable.” Then explains the difference by advising readers to “[use] fewer for number (individual persons or things) and less for volume or mass (indicating degree or value).” It offers the following examples: “Fewer interventions may not always mean less care” and “The authors evaluated fewer than 100 studies yet still reported more support for the conventionally prescribed therapy.” The entry is followed by a note that provides 2 more examples including parenthetical explanations:
spent less than $1000 (not: spent fewer than $1000)
reported fewer data (not: reported less data)
The Associated Press Stylebook2 entry says, “In general, use fewer for individual items, less for bulk or quantity” and provides the following examples, or should I say commands:
Wrong: The trend is toward more machines and less people. (People in this sense refers to individuals.)
Wrong: She was fewer than 60 years old. (Years in this sense refers to a period of time, not individual years.)
Right: Fewer than 10 applicants called. (Individuals.)
Right: I had less than $50 in my pocket. (An amount.) but: I had fewer than 50 $1 bills in my pocket. (Individual items.)
The Elements of Style3 elliptically warns, “Less should not be misused for fewer” with the following explanation. “Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. ‘His troubles are less than mine’ means ‘His troubles are not so great as mine.’ ‘His troubles are fewer than mine’ means ‘His troubles are not so numerous as mine.’”
A Writer’s Reference,4 a college handbook, is equally economical: “Fewer refers to items that can be counted; less refers to items that cannot be counted” followed by its example for usage: “Fewer people are living in the city” and “Please put less sugar in my tea.” (I’d rather that you didn’t put any sugar in my tea.)
But if the rule were so easy as these commonly used English-language usage references suggest, why are people confused?
If anything is certain about language, it is that nothing is certain: a truism that often frustrates my composition students, who simply want the answer when no one true answer exists. In the case of fewer and less, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage5 and Fowler’s Modern English Usage6 support my position by telling an entirely different story about how to use less and fewer, with Webster’s devoting 3 and a third columns to it and Fowler’s devoting about 3 columns over 2 entries.
The former launches the alternate-usage discussion with a metaphoric clearing of its throat to suggest, however, that the general usage rule cited in most English-language reference texts “has only one fault–it is not accurate for all usage” and offers a rule amendment for using less:
less refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted.
In other words, less can be used in both cases. Webster’s punctuates its point by saying the amended rule has actually reflected common usage for say “the past thousand years or so.” The general rule became established and embraced by most language scholars, so Webster’s theorized, from a 1770 comment about less made by Robert Baker in Reflections on the English Language. He wrote:
The word [less] is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. No fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper.
Thus, a modest preference has become, as Webster’s points out, “elevated to an absolute status.” That transformation, the entry laments, may be due to the reluctance of “many pedagogues … to share the often complicated facts about English with their students.” In fact, Webster’s points to the Oxford English Dictionary as showing that “less has been used as countables since the time of King Alfred the Great.”
Although Fowler’s trends toward the generally accepted usage rule, it recognizes that perhaps the “complicated facts about English” should in fact be elucidated. As a means of clarification, it uses parts of speech to explain the usage differences. It says that “few and its comparative adj. fewer are used with countable nouns, i.e. with nouns that have both a singular and a plural form (book/books)…; or with collective nouns (fewer people…)” but, “[l]ess which is a comparative of little, is properly used with uncountable or mass nouns: in other words less refers to quantity and is the opposite of more (less affection, less power, less misery).” Furthermore, Fowler’s acknowledges when less can be used “idiomatically with plural nouns … esp. distances (it is less than seventy miles to London)” and the like.
In its final example in the few entry, Fowler’s notes the “regrettable” trend of “the use of less with an unprotected plural noun.”(That’s an expression that’s new to me.) One of the example sentences of that violation is
There will be less 100% loans about.
Don’t we all know that?—Beverly Stewart, MSJ
1. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.
2. Goldstein N, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2007.
3. Strunk W, White EB. Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York, NY: Longman; 2000.
4. Hacker D. A Writer’s Reference. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St Martin’s; 2009.
5. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1989.
6. Burchfield RW. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd rev ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2004.