Fewer versus Less
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Fewer versus Less
A countable noun is any noun you can theoretically stick a number in front of —i.e., a thing you can theoretically count. Examples are bird, tree, problem, and letter. You can write “I see one bird” or “There seven trees in that grove” or “You face six problems” or “We have twenty-four letters in the alphabet,” and it makes sense to listeners.
A non-countable noun is any noun that you can’t stick a number in front of —i.e., one that’s an amorphous, uncountable blob. Examples are sand or ice or gold or smog or liquidity. It makes no sense to stick a number in front of them and say, “I want five ice” or “there are seven smog” or “you have twenty-four liquidity.” These are uncountable in their grammatical use, so they make no sense to listeners when you stick a number in front of them.
In situations that traditionally require less, modern native English speakers nearly almost follow the old-fashioned distinction. However, in situations that require fewer, many native English speakers tend to use less instead of fewer, which suggests the language is gradually changing to using less in both situations—but if so, that transition is not yet complete.
Some may argue this is all pedantic and doesn’t matter at all. Pace to Barry Etheridge in this thread, but I would counter that if the distinction between fewer and less were arbitrary, we would be equally comfortable stating “there is fewer water in my glass.” However, native listeners who heard such phrasing would probably indicate that it failed what linguists call “grammaticality judgments”— the technical term for “it doesn’t sound right to me as a native speaker of the language.”
In the example Mr. Etheridge gives in his sentence of, “It’s less than three miles to their home,” I would counter that his particular example in spoken language is an ellipsis for “It’s less than three miles’ [distance] to their home,” i.e., the speaker is thinking not of “I will travel less miles” but “I will travel less distance.”
Of course, Mr. Etheridge would be quite right to point out that I’m no telepath with the capacity to probe the subconscious of his hypothetical speaker’s mind, so take what I say with a grain—or even a pinch—of salt. Using less in both situations can come across as less stiff and formal than using fewer. Judge which to use based on your rhetorical situation.
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Less vs Fewer in English
Reference: Kip Wheeler, ( Ph.D. from the University of Oregon) ). “Is there a difference between Less vs. Fewer when used in a sentence?” originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.