Fewer/Less

Introduction

Fewer and less are the comparative forms of few and little. Using these words correctly is something that even native speakers often get wrong. We take a close look at the usage of fewer and less in English.

Fewer people write letters these days because they have less time than they used to.

When you can write an email in less than 5 minutes, why bother writing a letter.

I think I’ve received fewer than ten letters in my entire life!

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The Rules

We use fewer and less to compare things. They are the comparative forms of few and little and the therefore follow the same rules.

  • use fewer with countable nouns
Example:
Fewer people write letters these days.
  • use less with uncountable nouns
Example:
People have less time than they used to.
  • use less of and fewer of before a pronoun or determiner
Example:
I try to spend less of my time on the computer.
  • use less/few without a noun when the meaning is clear
Example:
Some people write letters, but fewer than before.

The Exceptions

Sometimes with measurements and numbers we use less even though the nouns are countable.

  • use less with numerals (1, 2, 3 etc.) or when indivual items are seen as a whole unit
Example:
An sms usually has less than 160 characters.
You can write an email in less than five minutes.
  • use fewer to stress individual items
Example:
This year I received fewer than ten letters.

Informal Speech

Although it is considered grammatically incorrect, many native speakers use less with both countable and uncountable nouns in informal speech.

Example:
People write less letters than they used to.
This year I got less than ten letters.