Common Errors in Written English: Fewer or Less Than?

Fewer or Less Than?

by Owen Fourie

Which one of these two sentences is correct?

  • I have fewer mistakes in my essay than you have in yours.
  • I have less mistakes in my essay than you have in yours.

In the following pair, which one is correct?

  • I have fewer rice on my plate than you have on yours.
  • I have less rice on my plate than you have on yours.

To understand how to use words such as fewer and less correctly as you write and as you speak, you must distinguish between count nouns and mass nouns.

Count Nouns

Count nouns are words that name things that can be or should be counted as individual units.

Such words are

arrows, battleships, cars, dogs, errors, houses, pens, students, tables.

For count nouns, use the adjective fewer.

Mass Nouns

Mass nouns are words that name things that cannot be or should not be taken apart and counted as individual units.

Such words are

air, butter, clothing, dust, electricity, homework, perseverance, sand, traffic.

For mass nouns, use the adjective less.

Count Nouns or Mass Nouns?

Words such as hair, light, and noise, which can be used as mass nouns in their singular form, are used as count nouns in their plural form.

  • His hair is long, but he still has less hair than she has.
  • There are fewer hairs on the back of my hand than there are on yours.
  • There is less light by day in the room with only one small window than in the room with the large windows.
  • There are fewer lights on at night in my house than there are in yours.
  • The noise of traffic disturbs me in your room, but there is less noise in my room, so I prefer to study there.
  • Many different noises kept me awake at night in the city, but now that I have moved into the country, there are fewer noises to trouble me.

Distance, Time, and Money

Watch out for the exceptions relating to distance, time, and money.

  • We traveled less than ten miles to the next cinema complex.
  • We spent less than two hours there.
  • We spent less than $20.

Although miles, hours, and dollars can be counted as separate units, the information in these sentences requires us to take them as whole amounts – a mass of distance, a mass of time, and a mass of money – so less is the appropriate adjective.

*****

Look again at the sentences at the beginning of this article. Now, you should be able to make the correct choice:

  • I have fewer mistakes in my essay than you have in yours. (You can count the mistakes individually.)
  • I have less rice on my plate than you have on yours. (It would be an absolute pain to count the individual grains of rice.)

Tactic for deciding what it is – mass or count noun?

All that you need to do is to think carefully about the object or substance described by a particular noun.

  • Is it something that is obviously an individual item and there are others like it that stand as individual items? If so, it is a count noun. You can count each item and get the total of all of them together. Fewer is the adjective to use.
  • Is it a substance that cannot be taken apart at all? Think of water or any liquid? If so, it is a mass noun.
  • Is it something that is difficult to take apart or that would be impossible to count as individual units because there are too many little bits? Think of sand and rice. There are far too many grains of each. They are uncountable, so it is a mass noun. Less is the adjective to use.

How students learn incorrect grammar

Next time you visit a supermarket to buy only a few items, go to the checkout reserved for that purpose. Look carefully and see the sign that tells you where to go. What does it say? No doubt it will say

20 items or less” or “Less than 20 items.”

Items are countable. The word item is a count noun, not a mass noun. The correct adjective is fewer. Do you see now how students learn incorrect grammar?

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Have you observed instances of what might be incorrect grammar in the marketplace and in advertising? Mention them here to get clarification. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

Copyright © 2011 by English Essay Writing Tips www.englishessaywritingtips.com

Here is a short video on this subject that is well worth watching. The teacher presents the point with the utmost clarity:

Count Nouns and Mass Nouns (Countable and Uncountable)


3 comments

1 ping

    • Barney on August 8, 2011 at 08:33
    • Reply

    Sorry, I should have said the third one “fewer rice” is wrong, the rest are correct.

    1. Barney: Thank you for your comments. As indicated at the end of the article, the correct usage is “less rice.” I have a problem, though, accepting “less mistakes” as being correct because mistakes are individual items. I’d appreciate it if you would list some of the available evidence (specific examples) here for using “less” with a count noun.

    • Barney on August 8, 2011 at 08:25
    • Reply

    The first three are correct, the last one is wrong: fewer is not used with a mass noun.

    The claim that less can not be used grammatically with a count noun doesn’t agree with the available evidence.

    • Jessica Byw | Filipino Freelancer | Affiliate Marketing on August 15, 2011 at 02:37

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