Blog March 31, 2016 by St Giles

ESL Tips: When to Say ‘Fewer’ and ‘Less’

road sign that says 'less stress ahead'

ESL students often have trouble deciding when they should use the word ‘less’ in a sentence and when they should use the word ‘fewer’. In fact, many people incorrectly use these words who are native English speakers.

For example, in 2008, the UK’s largest supermarket group Tesco changed its signs after being criticised for using the word ‘less’ when they should have been used ‘fewer’.  The signs in their fast-track checkouts read ’10 items or less’.  This was incorrect because when something can be counted individually, the correct word to use is ‘fewer’.

There is a general rule that applies to the use of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’.  Like many rules in the English language, there are also some exceptions to this rule.

The General Rule for Using ‘Fewer’ and ‘Less’ in a Sentence

In English, we use ‘fewer’ to describe how small a number of people or things are (such as muffins, parking tickets, plates, rings, dogs, cousins, or work assignments).

Examples of the use of ‘fewer’ in a sentence:

  • John has fewer marshmallows in his hot chocolate than William.
  • She packed fewer jumpers than her sister.
  • I have fewer chores to do this morning than Sheila.
  • I have fewer vacation days per year than my boss.

Conversely, we use ‘less’ to describe a smaller amount of something that cannot be counted or does not have a plural. Examples include shaving cream, potato salad, rain, applause, and space.

Examples of the use of ‘less’ in a sentence:

  • She drinks less water than I do; perhaps this is why she is frequently dehydrated.
  • Alice gets into less trouble at school than I do because she always arrives on time and remembers to complete her homework assignments.
  • There was less traffic on the M1 this week because schools are closed for half-term.
  • There is less direct sunlight on the porch.

Exceptions to the Rules about ‘Fewer’ and ‘Less’

The exception occurs when you are talking about ages, time, sums of money, and distance.  You would use ‘less’ in these instances because you are referring to total amounts rather than individual units.  Also, we use ‘less’ with numbers when they are on their own.