Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: less (1).

less (1). Today: And “fewer.” Strictly, “less” applies to singular mass nouns {less water} and “fewer” applies to plural count nouns {fewer interruptions}. An exception occurs when the plural count nouns are divisible units of measurements that essentially function as mass nouns {less than $5 a day}. Only if the units of measure are clearly discrete is “fewer” called for {fewer sick days}. Hence we say “less documentation” but “fewer documents“; “less of a burden” but “fewer burdens“; “less fattening” but “fewer calories.” But loose usage crops up often — e.g.: “You will have less [read ‘fewer‘] people to call and haunt about paying for their outfits and buying their accessories.” “Advice for the Bride,” Boston Herald (Mag.), 19 Oct. 1997, at 6. But even with strict usage, it’s sometimes a close call whether a thing is a mass noun or a count noun, and hence whether “less” or “fewer” is proper. Take, for example, a percentage: should it be “less than 10% of the homeowners were there” or “fewer than 10% of the homeowners were there“? One could argue that a percentage is something counted (i.e., 10 out of 100), and thus requires “fewer.” One could also argue that a percentage is a collective mass noun (akin, e.g., to “money“), and thus requires “less.” The latter is the better argument because most percentages aren’t whole numbers anyway. And even if it were a toss-up between the two theories, it’s sound to choose “less,” which is less formal in tone than “fewer.” Next: “One fewer” or “one less“? For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Correcting someone’s language, especially pronunciation, is taboo in our culture.” Mary Newton Brudner, The Grammar Lady 59 (2000). ====================
Scroll to Top