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rants, theories etc
A guide to using the humble comma.
‘When do you use “less” and when do you use “fewer”?’
I was thrilled when someone asked me that question recently.
It made me feel like one of those musicians who take requests.
The ones who have a repertoire so vast that they know any song likely to be thrown at them, whether it’s an obscure REM b-side or Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen, or they can play so well that they can just busk it. Either way, I’m hugely jealous.
When to use less, and when to use fewer.
In my experience, fewer and fewer people use fewer correctly, instead preferring “less” almost every time. Do you see what I did there?!
It’s not one of those grammatical mistakes that can make a huge difference (like saying “Let’s eat grandma” rather than “Let’s eat, grandma!”) but it’s nice to get things right, don’t you think?
The easiest way to think about it is like this:
– If you can number the thing you are talking about, use “fewer”
– E.g. Fewer shops than ever are closed on Sundays these days
Applying this rule should stop you making the common mistake of using “less” when it should be “fewer”. Shops is a plural and you could theoretically count them so it is “fewer”.
– If you can’t number the thing you are talking about, use “less”
– E.g. Could I have a little less milk in my tea next time please?
You can’t count milk or make it into a plural so it’s “less”.
The English language being the English language, though, there are exceptions!
– When talking about money, time or weight, generally use “less” – e.g. “David has less than £20 left in his wallet”, “John had been in his job for less than three months before they sacked him”, “Bill had lost less than six pounds on his diet”.
Percentages are even more tricky but personally I wouldn’t worry about it. If you’re determined, the best way to work it out is to ask “can I count the thing I’m talking about a percentage of?”
If so (e.g. “Fewer than 20% of Manchester United fans have ever actually been to Manchester”) then it’s “fewer.”
If not (“Less than 50% of his roast chicken was actually cooked”) then it’s “less”.
If you’re on LinkedIn, connect with me using the button on the right. If you’d like to read all my LinkedIn posts about grammar, follow the hashtag #andrewonwriting by clicking this link here and selecting “follow”
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