Weekly Writing Tip # 30

Photo of James HayashiThis post was written by James Hayashi. James is the writing advisor for USC Rossier Online and Rossier’s Masters Programs office. He earned his Master of Professional Writing from USC, and enjoys writing in the field of creative non-fiction in his (limited) free time

Less or Fewer

Dear Master’s student,

Last week we answered the age-old question “should I use who or whom?” The next few writing tips will continue examining which of two common options is the grammatically correct choice. This week: less or fewer.

Weekly Writing Tip 30

At the beginning of the calendar year, I wrote a tip on countable vs. non-countable nouns. If you need a refresher course on the topic, that blog is a good place to start.

Fewer is used with countable nouns, i.e. nouns that can be counted. (An alternate way to think of countable nouns: any noun that has a singular and a plural form.) For example, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, or three French hens. So we’d also use fewer geese a laying, or golden rings, etc.

Less should be used with nouns that can’t be counted (but are measured instead). For example, nouns like dust, sand, advice, music. (There’s no such thing as “five advices or three musics.”) So you’d say less dust, less music, etc.

Once you’ve inculcated this rule into your mind you’ll start to notice others using “less” incorrectly. You’ll notice it *all the time*. And it will start to drive you mad.



P.S. Here are some fun practice sentences for you:

1. Poor Lorde—she’ll always have [fewer/less] tigers on gold leashes than her neighbors from better post codes.

2. While [fewer/less] subjects participated in the Bateman study than in the Pearson study, the former was deemed more reliable by virtue of its superior methodology.

3. I’m not sure for whom I should have [fewer/less] sympathy: obsessive, compulsive, ego-maniacal Hannah, or self-absorbed, solipsistic, criminally fickle Marnie.

4. Because secondary school systems have exacerbated disparities in access and privilege, there are [fewer/less] minority and disadvantaged students applying to higher education.

Answers: (1)fewer; (2) fewer; (3) less; (4) fewer