So, tell me. Are you the sort of person who tuts at the sight of the sign in (some) supermarkets that says ‘Five items or less’? If you’re not sure why it should trouble you, read on and I’ll explain the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’.
Fewer people understand the rule than I’d like
You use “fewer” when you’re talking about people or you can count the items involved:
Five items or fewer
There were fewer people there than I expected
Fewer cats liked tuna than liked sardines
The less said the better
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, you use “less” when referring to mass nouns, which I find frankly less than helpful. (Usefully, Wikipedia has this definition of a mass noun: ‘a noun with the syntactic property that any quantity of it is treated as an undifferentiated unit, rather than as something with discrete subsets.’ Ahem.)
In other words, use less when counting the items in question isn’t possible or feasible:
We had less rain today than we did yesterday
There was less sand on the beach than in my shoes
The can was less tuna and more sardine
I hope that’s helpful. Now you too can tut at the ‘Five items or less’ sign.
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