I’m a bit of a grammar snob, so when people make mistakes like using “less” instead of “fewer,” I always notice, and it always bothers me. It makes the person sound lazy or ignorant (or stupid), especially when (if I feel comfortable correcting them) they can’t tell why they’re wrong, even when I point it out.
I was shocked to discover my mom was, until recently, one of these people. She majored in English, and I had to explain to her when it was appropriate to use “less” or “fewer.” I figured, maybe this is a more wide-spread problem than I thought, perhaps because when you say you want more of something there’s just one way to say it: MORE, but when you want not-more, you have to think. So let’s break it down:
Fewer is used when talking about individual items (cans of soda, grains of sand, etc.). The easy way to remember this is to see if you can apply numbers to it: five cans of soda, six grains of sand.
Less is used when talking about amounts (water, sand, etc.). Numbers cannot be applied to these. Would it make sense to say, “I want six sands, please.” No, no.
Few = individual items
“I want a can of soda.”
“Just one? How about six cans?”
“No, I want fewer than that. Just one, in fact.”
Less = amounts
“How much soda do you want?”
“Just a bit. Less than I had last time.”
Think of it this way: If a waiter asks, “How many waters do you guys want?” he’s really saying, “How many cups of water do you guys want.” He’s just being a lazy idiot. The answer is always “fewer,” because he’s talking about something you can count.
Something like a liquid can’t be divided and counted without changing it somehow (like pouring it into cups or freezing it into cubes); that’s a sure sign that you’re dealing with an amount, and you should use “less” when talking about diminishing it. Individual items (like ice cubes, sugar cubes, grains of sand, etc.) should be diminished using “fewer.”
Quiz time! Which is correct?
a) I would like less coffee.
b) I would like fewer coffees.
c) I would like less coffees.
d) I would like fewer coffee.
If you said A and B, you’re correct! If you said anything else, reread this post until you get it, or message me and I’ll help you understand how this works. It’s a simple way to get a handle on a part of the English language every native speaker should have mastered by adulthood. Alas…