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fewer (superlative fewest)

  1. The comparative of few; a smaller number.
    Fewer women wear hats these days.
    There are fewer tigers than there were a hundred years ago.

Usage notes

Note that the distinction between less and fewer is entirely different in different regions. Below are the most restrictive guidelines possible, which may not apply to English spoken in your region.

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The difference between less and fewer is that the former refers to an amount, while the latter refers to a numbered quantity of undivided items. Much confusion exists around these two terms, in part due to the fact that they share the same antonym: more.

Less is correctly used with:

  • Things that can't be counted, such as water or patience, as in "She has less patience than he does."
  • A number of units of continuous measurement, such as minutes, miles, kilograms, and the like, as in "he had to wait less than ten minutes," "this coat costs less than ten dollars," "he won by less than five percent of the vote," and "he would settle for no less than 3.5 gallons of the highest-grade milk." Although it is grammatically correct to use fewer in these cases the meaning changes to being fewer than that whole number and is only normally applicable to countable units, e.g. where sugar is sold in 1 kilogram packs and one limits a customer to fewer than 3 kilograms of sugar the implication is that only 2 kilograms might be purchased and 2.9 kilograms would be unacceptable despite being less than 3 kilograms.
  • Money, although all currencies have a precise minimum denomination. For example one might correctly request goods costing less than 45 cents.

With things that can be counted, fewer is considered to be the correct form, though it is common in casual writing and speech to use less. While some people would correct the statements "less than 3,000 people attended the rally," "there are less cars on the road today," and "please try to ask less questions," these usages are not atypical.

The use of less is one of the most frequently made errors, even among otherwise educated native speakers. As for instance Suzie Dent relates in Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-861012-2,

When the Education Secretary Charles Clarke spoke of 'less people' on the Today programme when speaking of raising the standard of communication skills among British schoolchildren, the phone lines of Radio 4 lit up. Clarke came under attack not for his government's policies, but for his use of 'less' rather than 'fewer' when referring to a plural noun. What hope for school standards, the programme listeners complained ...

It is common to find less incorrectly applied to countable items in some commercial settings, e.g. a queue marked 10 items or less at a supermarket chain.


See also

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