A PDF version is also available: Fewer vs. Less_Grammar Badgers
Fewer vs. Less
Do we just say “10 items or less” is grammatically wrong and tell learners they should use “10 items or fewer,” although the expression widely used in everyday life? Or do we just say a plural marker -s needs to combine with few/fewer? In this handout, you can see some teaching tips for both beginners and advanced English learners about the use of fewer and less.
- FEWER AND LESS
Briefly, fewer and less are quantifiers or adjectives. We use fewer to talk about a smaller number and less to talk about something that is smaller in size, amount, degree, etc. Both less and fewer are comparative words.
But their meaning is very similar! How can we distinguish fewer from less? In general, fewer combines with countable nouns and less combines with uncountable nouns.
This year, fewer babies will be born than last year.
Do you sleep less than 5 hours a day?
- WHY IS THIS SO CHALLENGING?
- Quotes from our interview with current ESL instructors and tutors:
“10 items or less is grammatically wrong but it is acceptable.”
“10 items or less is fine, not bad at all, but ‘fewer’ is nicer.”
Here is one excerpt from the Cambridge Dictionary Blog:
You will often hear less used with plural countable nouns in informal spoken situations, but traditionally it is not considered to be correct:
We’ve got less pizzas than we need. There’s ten people and only eight pizzas. (traditionally correct usage: fewer pizzas)
- Grammar books vs Linguistic reality
Prescriptive rules explain less combines with countable nouns and fewer combines with uncountable nouns. Then, why do we think that “10 items or less” is acceptable or not bad at all? .
- TIPS FOR TEACHING FEWER AND LESS
First, you should think about your audience! Here are some questions that you might want to consider:
- Who are my students/tutees?
- What are their needs?
- What kind of language skills do they have? Can I use grammar terms like subject, pronouns, and clause?
- Do they have to know strict rules of this grammar topic?
- Do they just want to achieve better communication skills or do they want to write essays for a college composition class?
- What kind of examples and activities will make today’s class fun and meaningful?
Here we provide two possible teaching tips for beginners and advanced learners:
- Beginners: learners whose goal is improving communication skills and become familiar with the form of fewer vs less.
- Advanced learners: learners whose goal is to improve their writing skills and to understand fewer vs less better for their language performance.
3.1 For beginners
- What is the difference between few and little?
Few is used for things we can count and little is used for things we cannot count.
- Which are countable and which are not?
Uncountable nouns – water, furniture, air, money, water, rain, etc.
Countable nouns– book, girl, pencil, item, etc.
- How can we distinguish countable and uncountable nouns?
Generally, we can attach an article, either a or an, to countable nouns.
(a) a book, a girl, a pencil, an item
*a water, *a furniture, *an air, *a money
Also, we can use the plural marker plural -s or -es as a cue for countable nouns. However, we rarely use -s or -es with uncountable nouns.
(b) few books, few girls, few pencils, few items
*few water, *few furniture, *few air *few money
little water, little furniture, little air, little money
Be careful! English has a couple of common nouns with irregular plural forms, such as people, children, men, women, geese, oxen, and mice.
- When do we use just few and little and when do we use a few and a little?
All 4 expressions have the meaning like some, but few and little (without articles) can connote negativity.
(c) a few books = some books, two or three books
few books = not many books, almost none
a little water = some water
little water = not much water
- When do we use fewer and less?
Fewer is the comparative expression of few, and less is the comparative expression of little.We use these comparative expressions when we need to compare two things; for example, we can say two books are fewer than three books.
(d) fewer books, fewer girls, fewer pencils, fewer items
*fewer water, * fewer furniture, *fewer air, * fewer money
less water, less furniture, less air, less money
*less books, *less girls, *less pencils, *less items
3.2 For advanced learners
- Fewer than Less than
We have learned that for the uncountable nouns we should use few, a few, and fewer; for the countable nouns we should use little, a little, and less. Let’s consider the following sentences:
(a) The resignation of President Hosni Mubarak is a stunning accomplishment for the country’s courageous youth-led opposition. In fewer than three weeks, they forced a largely peaceful end to his 30-year autocracy (New York Times)
(b) Jon M. Chu’s “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” is billed as a concert documentary, but fewer than half of its 105 minutes are devoted to Mr. Biber onstage (New York Times)
- Do you think the expression fewer is correct or sounds reasonable on the examples (a) and (b)? Why do you think so?
According to New York Time’s style book, less is used for describing a quantity considered as a single bulk amount. For example, “the police recovered less than $ 1,500; It happened less than five years ago.” The Times recommends that making the sentence in less than three weeks for (a) and less than half of its 105 minutes are for (b).
- Is it better for us to use singular verbs and expressions like little or less for words that describe the concept of time, money, distance, and weight considered as a single quantity?
Grammar girl explains that nouns such as 105 minutes, in three weeks, and one less problem refer to an amount or amounts. Do you think this kind of explanation is convincing? How do we explain this concept to learners?
Macmillan Dictionary Blog answers that “there is no rational basis for the rule about using less only with uncountable noun,” because based on findings from the British National Corpus, there is an increasing tendency that people use less with countable nouns. Then, we can explain to our students that for formal writing genres, it is better to use fewer with countable nouns; however, the linguistic reality seems to tolerate the use of less with uncountable nouns in less formal genres.
- AN ACTIVITY WITH DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
We have learned that for uncountable nouns we should use little or less, and for countable nouns we should use few or fewer. Here are some discussion questions:
- Are you familiar with these signs?
- What type of signs are they?
- Where do you find these signs?
- What is the meaning of the signs?
- Do any of the signs have a problem? If yes, why?
- Is it a critical grammar issue regarding communication?
- Which one do we have to use?
- Think about your audience and adjust your lesson plan to suit their level and needs.
- For communicative purposes, less is acceptable with plural countable nouns
- In an academic context, fewer is grammatically preferred with plural countable nouns.