LawProse Lesson #144: “Less” vs. “fewer”

LawProse Lesson #144: “Less” vs. “fewer”

Less vs. fewer Use fewer when referring to individual or countable things {fewer than ten chairs} {fewer questions asked by judges}. Use less when referring to volume, quantity, or degree {less influence on the jurors}, mass or bulk nouns {less water in the glass}, or units of measure or time {less than three ounces} {less than five months}. There is one exception: use less when count nouns are really being used as amounts instead of individual increments {he has less than one million dollars} {we have less than two minutes of rebuttal time}. Sometimes it can be a close call whether something is a mass noun or a count noun. Take, for example, a percentage: should it be less than 10% of the shareholders voted or fewer than 10% of the shareholders voted? A percentage could be something counted or a collective mass noun like money. I prefer less than 10% of the shareholders because most percentages aren’t whole numbers anyway, and less is less formal in tone than fewer. One more point: it’s redundant to say *a fewer number because the idea of number is included in the meaning of fewer (a smaller number) {*a fewer number of managers}. Say a smaller number when referring to numbers specifically; otherwise, prefer fewer (standing alone) {fewer managers}. That uses fewer words — and less space. Countables take fewer {fewer people} {fewer delegates} {fewer documents}. But compare “fewer than six pennies in my pocket” with “less than six cents in my pocket.” Pennies are distinct things, but six cents denotes an amount. Noncountable mass nouns take less {less power} {less documentation} {less than 50 years ago} {less than $100 in his wallet} {less of a burden}. You’ll usually find it easy to apply these rules. You’ll make fewer mistakes and commit them less often. Sources: Garner’s Modern American Usage 351, 507-08 (3d ed. 2009). Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 359, 538 (3d ed. 2011). The Chicago Manual of Style § 5.220, at 288, (16th ed. 2010). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 12.3, at 277 (3d ed. 2013). The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 106 (2013). Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 150-51 (Barzun ed. 1966). R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 294-95 (3d ed. 1996). Thanks to Bruce Hogan for suggesting this topic.

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