Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Grammar tip: when to use "less" and when to use "fewer"

Although I see the words less and fewer confused in many of the documents I edit, I think it is abused more often in everyday speech and by people who should know better, such as TV news broadcasters.

The rule is simple. Use less for a bulk item or one amount. Use fewer for individual items.

 For example:

-        I have less sugar, but I have fewer grains of sugar. The first part refers to a bulk item; the second part refers to individual items.

 Here are some examples from The Associate Press Stylebook:

-        Wrong: The trend is toward more machines and less people. (This should be fewer people because we’re referring to individuals.)

-        Correct: Fewer than 10 applicants applied. (individuals)

-        Correct: I had less than $50 in my pocket (one amount)

-        Correct: I had fewer than 50 $1 bills in my pocket. (individual items)

-        Wrong: She was fewer than 60 years old. (This should be less because we’re referring to a one period of time, not individual years.

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