What’s the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’?

30 January 2018

Both ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are the opposite of ‘more’. All three words are ‘describing words’ that are to do with a number (known as numerical adjectives). We use ‘less’ to describe a noun that’s uncountable, as in ‘less water’. We use ‘fewer’ to describe a noun that’s countable, as in ‘fewer people’. A noun is a ‘naming’ word for people, animals, places and things.

Most of us instinctively know that ‘less’ is the correct numerical adjective for describing an uncountable noun such as ‘coffee’ or ‘success’, but many of us also use it, incorrectly, to describe a countable noun such as ‘people’, as in ‘less people’.

To decide whether to use ‘less’ or ‘fewer’, simply ask yourself either:

Is the noun a concept or an uncountable entity, such as ‘perfection’ or ‘coffee’? Use ‘less’.

'There is less coffee in this cup.'

or:

Is the noun two or more of something or someone, such as ‘reports’ or ‘beans’? Use ‘fewer’.

'The barista used fewer beans to make the coffee.'

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