Fewer or Less

It comes up every now and then, and, although all the descriptions get the same result, the rules are more complex than they need to be.

If you are counting objects, use “fewer”. If you are measuring it (by eye, ruler, scale, balance, measuring cup, micrometer…) use “less”.

There is less sand in pile A. We are measuring by eye.

There are fewer grains of sand in pile A. Yes, you are an idiot to count each grain, but you could.

The same goes for time and distance.

There are fewer hours in an Earth day than a day on Titan. There is less time in an Earth day.

It takes less time to drive to the store than to the cottage. There is less distance, but fewer miles.

 

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3 Responses

  1. And the same rules for “few” vs. “little” or “many” vs. “much” (there are only a few grains of sand on the pile / there is only a little sand on the pile; there are many grains of sand on the pile / there is much sand on the pile). Compare also “Few dare to contradict him” (people, whom you can count) vs. “Little escapes him” (information/knowledge, which you can’t count – only conceivably measure).

    • Good point! Either those don’t cause many problems, or they’re used so rarely that they … well, don’t cause many problems.

      • Or perhaps it’s the comparative that trips people up? Because for “many” and “much”, the comparative is the same either way (more grains of sand/more sand), so perhaps people generalise that to the antonym as well (*less grains of sand/less sand)?

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