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Commonly Confused Words: Less vs. Fewer


It’s really easy to get mixed up between using the word ‘fewer’ and using the word ‘less’. Both words express a similar meaning, but they are not actually interchangeable.

As a general rule, ‘fewer’ is used to refer to things that can be counted, and ‘less’ for things that are uncountable.

  1. Do you mean ‘not as many’? Use ‘fewer’.
  2. Do you mean ‘not as much’? Use ‘less’.

Of course, as is the case with most rules, there are exceptions - let’s take a look at how to use each word more specifically…

USING ‘FEWER’

What does ‘fewer’ mean?
The word ‘fewer’ is used to emphasise specifically how much smaller a number of people or things are. You can read the full dictionary definition of the word here.

When do I use ‘fewer’?
Use ‘fewer’ when you are referring to people or things in the plural – i.e. things that can be counted.

For example:

  • I find that using fewer make up products is much better for my skin.
  • If you practise before a spelling test, it’s likely that you will make fewer mistakes.

WATCH OUT for plurals that don’t end in ‘s’. For example: children, people, or men. Use ‘fewer’ for these plurals too:

  • Families generally have fewer children than they used to.
  • Fewer people attended the meeting than they did last week.

EXCEPTION: When you are referring to a specific distance, time, age, or sum of money, you are emphasising the amount as a single total, and not the number of individual measurements. This means that you need to use ‘less’ – see number 3 under the notes on ‘less’.

USING ‘LESS’

What does ‘less’ mean?
The word ‘less’ is used to express that something is ‘not as great in amount or degree’. You can read the full Spellzone dictionary definition of the word here.

When do I use ‘less’?
Use ‘less’ when you are referring to something that can’t be counted or doesn’t have a plural.

For example:

  • I wear less make up than I used to.
  • It takes me less time to put on my make up than it used to.
  • I also spend less money on my make up products.

WATCH OUT for plurals that don’t end in ‘s’. For example: children, people, or men. See notes on ‘fewer’.

Use ‘less’ in combination with ‘than’ with numbers that are on their own.

For example:

  • If you get score less than seven, you will have to take the spelling test again.
  • She was supposed to have thirty minutes for her lunch break, but her manager allowed her less than ten.

Use ‘less’ in combination with ‘than’ when referring to numbers of distances, times, ages, and sums of money. You need to use less’ rather than ‘fewer’ here because here you are not emphasising the individual number of miles, or years, or dollars, but the single total amount.

  • I have less than £10 in my purse.
  • I live less than a mile from the city centre.

Do let us know if you have any questions. Happy Spelling!

Avani Shah


17 Mar 2014
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