Fewer v. Less

If you’ve ever been in a grocery store, you’ve seen the express line, which generally caters to shoppers with “10 items or less.” This may come as a big shock to you (or not), but 99 percent of grocery stores use improper grammar! The express line should cater to shoppers who have “10 items or fewer.”

What’s the difference? Isn’t the meaning the same? Well, to some extent, yes, in that we understand what is meant either way. Few people make a distinction between the two these days. And in a few more decades, it’s likely that the only people who will care will be editors and linguists. However, if you wish to be grammatically correct (and sound smart), you’ll keep in mind this usage rule (from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary): Less applies to non-countable things (matters of degree, value, or amount) and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole. Fewer applies to matters of number (quantity, or countable things) and modifies plural nouns.

Examples:

  • Shoppers can use the express lane if they have 10 items or fewer. (In this case, we use fewer because we are referring to a countable number of items.)
  • My sprained ankle hurt less after I iced the area. (In this case, we use less because we are referring to the degree of pain, a non-countable thing.)

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Published in: on July 7, 2009 at 11:42 pm  Comments (1)  
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