Fewer vs. Less [How to Use Correctly]
You might write that you want fewer mistakes and less inefficiency in your business writing or office. But, it would be incorrect to write that you want less mistakes and fewer inefficiency. Why is that?
This article will explore the difference between less and fewer to make sure you can always choose the correct one in your business writing.
What’s the difference?
Mistakes and inefficiency are different types of nouns. Mistakes is a countable noun while inefficiency is uncountable.
Countable nouns are ones where you can count the individual singular nouns that make up the plural noun. Examples of countable nouns are invoices, products, ideas, and employees. You can count the number of employees, whether there is one employee or 1,000 employees. The word employee can be made plural, and therefore, you can count the word employee.
Uncountable nouns, or mass nouns, cannot be separated and counted because there is no discrete part of the noun that is separate from the whole. Examples of uncountable nouns include productivity, money, and electricity. You can have a lot of productivity, but you cannot count one productivity, two productivities, and so on. The same goes for money: we count dollars and cents all the time, but you cannot count one money or 1,000 monies.
When to use ‘less’ versus ‘fewer’
Fewer is an adjective that means a smaller number, and so you use it with countable nouns. Less means a smaller amount, and so you use it with uncountable nouns.
- After taking a vacation, you have less time off remaining.
- After taking a vacation, you have fewer days off remaining.
- We saw less information shared during the poorly-timed IT upgrade.
- We saw fewer files transferred during the poorly-timed IT upgrade.
- The northwest factory had less work during the economic slowdown.
- The northwest factory had fewer jobs during the economic slowdown.
- The team will have less space in the new office.
- The team will have fewer desks in the new office.
Surprise! The common grocery store sign "10 Items or Less" is grammatically incorrect. It should state "10 Items or Fewer."
What are other countable or uncountable nouns?
Fewer and less are not the only words that are unique to one type of noun. For example:
|A few/Few||A little/Little|
Why we confuse ‘less’ and ‘fewer’
Fewer and less are commonly mixed up because they have the same antonym: more. If you want to have a higher number or larger amount of a countable or uncountable noun, you simply need to use more. There is no choice for the adjective for an increased number or amount. Therefore, we don’t have a parallel to lean on, and so fewer and less often get confused.
Countable and Uncountable Exceptions
Navigating less and fewer is only one of the challenges in navigating countable and uncountable nouns. Yet, even the rule above has its exceptions. Navigating these exceptions will ensure your business communication is natural and accurate.
There are some words that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns. These are: some, plenty of, a lot of, and any. You can have some employees and plenty of electricity, as well as plenty of employees and some electricity.
Be careful! There are quite a few words that are used as countable nouns even though they are technically uncountable. A good example of this would be coffee. We all say, “I'll have two coffees, please.” But, this is technically incorrect (it should be two cups of coffee). It is worth remembering that certain nouns (coffee, water, beer, etc.) are uncountable even when used as countable nouns. If you remember that, you will be more likely to choose the correct quantifier. This is important because even though it's not a problem to say, “I drink two coffees per day,” it is a problem to say, “I need to drink fewer coffees.”
If you are ever in doubt, consult a good dictionary, which will differentiate between countable and uncountable nouns. The nuances of countable and uncountable noun usage may seem small, but they are invaluable to the clarity and ease of your business writing.
Tailor your grammar improvement plan
Remember, business grammar errors are always very individual. To correct your errors, it isn't helpful to simply review every business grammar rule in existence. Instead, choose an overall business writing course or business grammar course that provides personalized review and feedback on your writing. With tailored support, you can understand your unique writing challenges and become a better all-around business communicator.
About the author
Katie Almeida Spencer
Katie is an experienced Business Writing and English as a Second Language instructor, business writing coach, and teacher trainer. She taught Business and Academic Writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Rhode Island and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Boston.