The words less and fewer both mean the same thing; they are both the opposite of "more." But students of English, and even native speakers, often have trouble knowing which word to use in different situations. Sometimes, you can go by ear and pick because one will sound better than the other, but there's a simple rule to make sure you always know when to use less or fewer.
Less vs. Fewer: Key Differences and Rules to Remember
The Less or Fewer Rule of Thumb
Less and fewer are both adjectives that modify nouns, but they have different uses. The basic rule to remember in less vs. fewer is:
Less means a smaller amount or "not as much" and is used when describing singular or uncountable nouns.
Fewer is defined as not as much and is used when describing plural or countable nouns.
Examples Using Less in a Sentence
Since less is used with uncountable nouns, this word describes a singular noun. Check out these examples.
You should use less sugar in your coffee.
I have less money than my brother.
You should have one less problem to solve after today.
Could you give me a little less rice?
No, I need a little less butter.
Less With Uncountable Nouns
When it comes to using less, think about nouns that you can't count. For example, coffee and sugar are considered uncountable nouns, so you would use less with those items. View examples using uncountable nouns.
I need to drink less coffee.
There is less milk in my glass.
You should add less oil.
We are trying to use less electricity.
Using Less for Time and Money
Time and money can get a bit confusing. Even though you describe the plural word years, you are talking about a singular chunk of time. In this case, you would use less to describe that chunk of time or money. For example:
She completed her internship in less than three years.
In less than four years, she'll be back home.
She made less than 10 dollars.
The tip was less than five dollars for the meal.
It wasn’t worth it when I made less than four dollars an hour.
Using Less For Weight
When it comes to weight, this is an exception to the countable rule. Though weight can be counted, it would sound funny if you used fewer rather than less. For example, the sentence, "My dog weighs fewer than 90 lbs." doesn't sound quite right Therefore, you typically use less when talking about an amount of weight rather than measuring weight.
My dog weighs less than 90 lbs.
You will need less than four gallons of water.
That was less than five meters in length.
The baby weighed less than two pounds at birth.
The truck was less than a ton.
Percentages With Less
When using less or fewer with percentages, if the percentage is describing something uncountable use less. For example, if it’s a percentage of milk, use less. However, if it’s a percentage about something countable, use fewer. For example, if the percentage is about bananas, use fewer. See how less works in a sentence with percentages.
You drank less than 5% of your milk.
You used less than 10% of the water.
I watched you eat less than 5% of that meat before throwing it away.
I had heard less than 10% of the news before running to the door.
The foundation had less than 90% of the money they needed to meet their goal.
Examples of Fewer in a Sentence
When you use fewer in a sentence, it describes a plural or countable noun in the sentence. See how fewer is used in a sentence through these examples.
Fewer than ten people bought tickets to the show, so it was canceled.
I want fewer gifts for my birthday this year and more fun with my friends.
There are fewer puppies in the pen than last time.
I had fewer than 5 dollars left to my name.
There were fewer tables available for lunch today.
Using Fewer With Countable Nouns
Countable nouns are the things that you can count, such as how you can count people or gifts. For these nouns, you would use fewer. Some examples include:
There are fewer people here than last time.
You should buy fewer gifts.
There were fewer plates on the table.
I saw fewer cars on the street.
There were fewer jobs this week in the classifieds.
Using Fewer With Time
Fewer will rarely be used with time. However, there are times when it is used for a countable chunk or general reference of time, such as:
It would be nice to spend fewer minutes cleaning and more reading.
Fewer hours working and more having fun sounds great.
It would be nice to spend fewer hours yelling at the kids and more having fun together.
Choosing Fewer With Percentages
When it comes to percentages, it's harder to tell whether less or fewer should be used. However, you'll want to think about whether whatever you're taking a percentage of is countable. If it is, use fewer. For example:
Fewer than 5% of people like spam.
There are fewer than 7% of people wearing red.
Fewer than 10% of the bin are peaches.
We counted fewer than 5% of the cantaloupes on the table were ripe.
Fewer than 40% of the people were let into the club.
Since people and peaches are countable, fewer is your best choice.
Common Fewer vs. Less Errors
The most common error of fewer or less is one you see every time you visit the grocery store. Consider the rules for the express lane: Twelve items or less.
Based on the singular vs. plural rules, it's clear that this is incorrect because twelve items are clearly plural. In this case, it would be correct to say twelve items or fewer or fewer than twelve items. However, your local Walmart isn't following the rules of grammar.
Less vs. Fewer: The Great Debate
Now that you know the simple rules for working out whether to use fewer or less, you'll make fewer mistakes. However, this is one of those grammatical rules that has been consistently broken over the years, so if you use the wrong one in informal writing or speech, maybe because it sounds better to your ear, that is not a serious error. Just remember to be more careful in a formal setting. Keep your knowledge of confusing grammar rules going by looking at are vs. our.