There are a couple points (topics) in English that even native speakers get confused, and when to use fewer vs. less is one of them. Knowing this difference may seem tricky (hard, complicated) at first, but once you know the logic behind when to use fewer vs. less, you’ll know exactly what to do!
Why do so many people have trouble with the difference between less and fewer? It could be because both words are the opposite of the word more. It’s very easy to know when to use more. It can be used in any context and is not dependent on the nouns around it.
- I would like to make more money.
- I want more cookies.
However, if you don’t want more of something and you would rather have less of something, you have to decide whether (if) to use fewer vs. less.
- I would like to make less money.
- I want fewer cookies.
Can you see the difference? The way you pick whether to use fewer vs. less is down to (dependent on) countable and uncountable nouns.
Fewer vs. Less and Countable vs. Uncountable Nouns
The first thing to know about when deciding whether to use fewer or less is to know the difference between countable and uncountable nouns.
Countable nouns are nouns that you can count. This can be things like peas, books, coins, or cookies. It’s really any noun that you can count if it’s in a group of something. With countable nouns, we use many, for example, “How many books do you have?”
Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, are things that can’t be counted on their own. These are nouns like money, sand, milk, and juice. The tricky bit (part) of uncountable nouns is that you CAN count them, but you have to put it into a unit to measure it. With uncountable nouns, we use much, as in “How much money does this cost?”
While you can use the word more with both countable and uncountable nouns, using its opposites, fewer or less, is dependent on whether nouns are countable or uncountable. Fewer is used with countable nouns, and less is used with uncountable nouns. So fewer is used for things that can be counted as individuals, and less is used for things that we talk about in quantities (groups, collective nouns).
- The child wants fewer peas.
- He has fewer books than before.
- I have fewer coins than you do.
- Please give her fewer cookies next time.
- I have less money than you.
- There is less sand on this beach.
- I would like less milk, please.
- She drank less juice.
If you’re still having trouble with figuring out whether to use fewer or less, think of fewer as meaning “not as many” and less as meaning “not as much.”
Now that you know the difference between fewer and less, it’s time to test your knowledge! Try out this short quiz to test when to use fewer and when to use less, and then check your answers below.
- I have _____ plants than he does.
- I would like to have ______ wine next time.
- Do they have _____ children than the Smiths?
- Now that I have a new project at work, I have _____ time to get things done.
- I make _____ money at my new job.
- Next time, we should order ______ pizzas.
- They make these bottles with ______ plastic in them.
- She would like ______ potatoes with dinner.
- There were _______ people at the event this time.
- The children should really have _______ cookies after dinner.
Answers: fewer, less, fewer, less, less, fewer, less, fewer, fewer, fewer
How many did you get right? Can you think of any other examples of when to use fewer vs. less? Share with us in the comments below!
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and is always happy to answer questions about when to use fewer vs. less. Just ask!
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