Fewer and less

Posted on 4 March 2015 by Emily Stella

Fewer and less: the controversy

Tesco came under fire from grammarians a few years ago for its checkout notice: ’10 items or less’. The grammatically correct version, ’10 items or fewer’, didn’t sound quite right, so they replaced it with ‘Up to 10 items’.

But why was their first stab incorrect?
 

Can you count it?

Fewer is for things you count individually: fewer meetings or fewer computers.

Less is for things you can’t count or things not thought of in numbers: less fun, less work or less information.

Going back to Tesco’s faux pas, less is grammatically wrong in this instance because you can count 10 items.

Another way to distinguish between less and fewer is whether your noun is plural or singular.

For singular nouns, you use less: less IT equipment, less orange juice.

For plural nouns, use fewer: fewer iPads, fewer oranges.
 

Exceptions to the rule

When talking about time, money, units of measurement and proportions, it’s generally correct to use less because they are often not thought of in numbers.

The party is less than three weeks away.

The project costs less than £10,000.

The car was travelling at less than 70 miles per hour.

Less than 5% of the 100 people surveyed supported the proposal.

In these examples, the reference is not to three distinct weeks, 10,000 pound coins, 70 separate miles or the small number of individuals who supported the proposal, but to single or collective concepts.
 

When it’s ok to bend the rules

It was probably unfair to criticise Tesco for their sign. Although it’s technically wrong, the phrase is so common in this context it’s arguably an idiom of the English language.

Harvard psychologist and writing expert Stephen Pinker gives another example: ‘Describe yourself in 50 words or less.’ Again, technically, it should be ’50 words or fewer’ but this doesn’t sound quite right.
 

Foolproof solution

If you’re really not sure which to go for, see if you can rephrase your sentence.

Joe has fewer meetings this week than last week.

Joe had more meetings last week than this week.

 

The car was travelling at less than 70 miles per hour.

The car was travelling slower than 70 miles per hour.

 

Describe yourself in 50 words or less.

Describe yourself in a maximum of 50 words.