by Jean Foster Akin
There is a difference between the words FEWER and LESS that makes interchanging them improper. It makes interchanging them a mistake. It isn’t the worst mistake a person can make, but let’s see if we can fix that mistake, regardless, so that it is one less mistake we make. Okay? Okay. Here we go:
The word FEWER relates to the NUMBER of INDIVIDUAL ITEMS OR THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE we happen to be counting. For instance, the number of pencils in a box, the number of toothpicks in a cup, the number of colored glass balls on a Christmas tree, the number of people at a party. The word FEWER relates to COUNTABLE things.
USING THE WORD:
CORRECT: “Unfortunately, there were fewer people helping out at the Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless than at last year’s event.” You can count people individually, so the proper word to use in this sentence is FEWER.
WRONG: “There are less people here than there were last year.”
CORRECT: “Have you noticed that Alpo is putting fewer dog biscuits in their boxes now, but charging consumers the same amount?” You can count the dog biscuits individually, therefore, use the word FEWER.
WRONG: “There are less dog bones in this box than the last time we bought dog biscuits.”
CORRECT: “Because of the fear of dangerous additives in the flu shot, fewer people are getting them.” We can count the number of flu shots administered, and therefore the number of people taking them. We can count people and flu shots INDIVIDUALLY, therefore, we use the word FEWER in this sentence.
WRONG: “There are less flu shots being administered this year.”
The word “less” relates to SINGULAR MASS ITEMS, such as all-purpose flour, or sand, or grain, or rice, or salt water in the Atlantic ocean. Even the air around us is a singular mass item.
USING THE WORD
CORRECT: “Oh look at this! Last year I paid two dollars for a 16 ounce bag of rice, and this year I’m paying the same amount of money for 14 ounces! Those sneaky rice sellers are putting less rice in their bags!”
WRONG: “Those sneaky rice sellers are putting fewer rice in their bags.”
Of course, you probably saw the problem with that last sentence, didn’t you? But, you CAN say, “Manufacturers are putting FEWER rice grains in their bags this year,” because grains of rice CAN be counted individually, though why would you want to?
You can also use the word FEWER if you say, “Those sneaky rice sellers are putting FEWER ounces of rice in their bags.” This is because we can weigh and COUNT THE OUNCES in a bag of rice.
The word FEWER is used in sentences connected to INDIVIDUAL ITEMS and COUNTABLE THINGS: people, animals, marbles in a sack, shoes in your closet, etc.
The word LESS is used in sentences connected to SINGULAR MASS ITEMS: air, dust, water, advice, sunshine, publicity, etc.