Word Wednesday: Less vs. Fewer

Learning new words and being able to find the word that means exactly what the story needs can mean the difference between a mediocre story and a brilliant one.

We recently started a new series within Word Wednesday of commonly confused words.

A reader reached out to me: “Could you do ‘less vs. fewer?’  I was quite pleased to see that Trop50 finally re-shot their commercial to have Jane Krakowski say, ‘50% fewer calories,’ instead of ‘50% less calories.’  But of course, now I have heard a new radio commercial from someone else using it incorrectly yet again.”

“Less” and “fewer” is an error bugs me, but I notice myself getting them mixed up in speaking though I know to catch it in writing.

So what’s the rule?

Simply put, it’s quality versus quantity.

“Less” is used in a general qualitative sense, but if you can count the items, you must use “fewer.”

Capitalizing on the Trop50 example, we’re going to stick with calories.

So I want to lose weight, which means—should I succeed—that I will weigh fewer pounds that I did before. I can count the pounds (all of them, unfortunately), therefore I must use “fewer.”

Similarly, if I want to eat less food, it is likely that I will ingest fewer calories. I can count the calories, but not the food.

Let’s take another example, that of a bank account. I might make a withdrawal to pay a bill. It is equally correct to state that I have less money in the bank than I did before, and that I have fewer dollars in the bank than before. In this case, money is a general term but the dollars can be counted.

Now, as with almost everything else in the English language, there are a few exceptions to this rule. But since she does it so well, I’ll send you over to read Grammar Girl.


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