Fewer vs. Less

The first worksheet explains the correct use of "fewer" and "less" in making comparisons. Both worksheets give students the opportunity of writing complete sentences using "fewer than" and "less than" correctly.

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Worksheet 1, Fewer vs. Less, 14 Exercises
Worksheet 2, Fewer vs. Less, 27 Exercises

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General Rule for "Fewer" and "Less"

The words "fewer" and "less" sometimes give writers problems. Which is the correct one to use? As a general rule, use the word "fewer" with count nouns (nouns that you can count, like "cups" and "pencils"). Use the word "less" with non-count nouns (nouns that you cannot count, like "water" and "courage"). So, for example, you would write, "There are fewer students attending the lecture this year than last year." But you would write "Some elders believe that children today have less dedication today than they did twenty years ago." You can count "students," so you use "fewer." You cannot count "dedication" because it is an abstract noun, so you use the word "less."

Count Nouns and Non-Count Nouns

Count Nouns:

Nouns that you can count are called "count nouns." These nouns usually take an "s" at the end when you want to make them plural, for example, "fewer dogs." The noun "dogs" is a count noun. Most nouns in English are countable.

Non-Count Nouns:

These nouns can be physical nouns, like rice, coffee, furniture, metal, money, sand, equipment, and homework. These physical nouns do not lend themselves to being counted. For example, we can count one "item" of furniture, but not furniture itself. Therefore, you would write, "There is less furniture in the house today than there was yesterday." However, you would write, "There are fewer items of furniture (tables, for example) in the house today then there were yesterday."

For a list of count and non-count nouns, see the worksheet, Fewer vs. Less

Confusion With Time, Weight, Distance, and Money

Sometimes we have a context where there exists confusion about the use of "fewer" and "less." For example, should we write, "I have fewer than five dollars in my wallet," or should we write, "I have less than five dollars in my wallet"? Most native speakers would agree on the correctness of "less than five dollars." However, we can count dollars, so shouldn't we use "fewer"?

When we use expressions like "less than two miles," "less than five minutes," "less than ten pounds," "less than two dollars" we are referring to an absolute quantity of an item, not to a collection of individual items that are being compared to those same items somewhere else. In this sense, "miles" means distance, "minutes" means time, "pounds" means weight, and "dollars" means money. These are absolute quantities. They are not being compared with anything else.

Comparison and Absolute

Note the difference in the following sentences.

  • Comparison: Reginald lost fewer pounds on the Adkins Diet than he did on the South Beach Diet.
  • Absolute (No Comparison): Reginald lost less than five pounds on the Adkins Diet.

In the case of "fewer," we are comparing the number of pounds that Reginald lost on one diet with the number of pounds he lost on another. With "less" we are not comparing anything. The word "pounds" is an absolute quantity.

When in Doubt, Use the Rule

When you are in doubt, especially if English is not your native language, use the rule of "fewer" for count nouns and "less" for non-count. Thus,

  • James walked fewer than two miles to school.
  • Monica waited fewer than five minutes at the doctor's office.
  • Reginald lost fewer than ten pounds on his diet.
  • Peter has fewer than two dollars in his wallet.

Worksheet 1, 14 Exercises

Use fewer or less correctly in the following sentences.

  1. There are (less, fewer) markers in the cabinet today than yesterday.
  2. Chefs use (less, fewer) kilograms of flour making pastries than making bread.
  3. (Less, Fewer) automobiles cross the bridge at night than in the afternoon.
  4. Energy-efficient appliances consume (less, fewer) electricity than older appliances.
  5. Energy-efficient appliances consume (less, fewer) kilowatts of electricity than older appliances.
  6. Janice exhibits (less, fewer) emotional outbursts than Alicia.
  7. Modern buildings use much (less, fewer) steel beams than older buildings.
  8. This spring, I plan to spend (less, fewer) Euros travelling than I did last year.
  9. People spend (less, fewer) days vacationing than they did in the past.
  10. Peter has lost (less, fewer) weight than John because he does not eat (less, fewer) candy bars at snack time.
  11. When Ali moved to Brisbane, he packed (less, fewer) bags than his sister.
  12. The winery shipped (less, fewer) barrels of wine this year.
  13. Chinese food uses (less, fewer) grams of cheese per serving than Mexican food.
  14. Florida ships (less, fewer) tons of sugar today than it did last decade.

Worksheet 2, 27 Exercises

  1. (Fewer, Less) than three weeks remain until our trip to Disney World.
  2. The GED preparation course took Christina (fewer, less) than three weeks to complete.
  3. Christina completed the GED preparation course in three (fewer, less) weeks than James did.
  4. (Fewer, Less) students enrolled in Mr. Asper’s sociology class this year than last year.
  5. The answer key to the worksheets costs (fewer, less) than ten dollars.
  6. (Fewer, Less) than seven teachers signed up for the workshop; therefore, it was cancelled.
  7. Every morning, Leslie must walk (fewer, less) than four miles to school.
  8. Every morning, Leslie must walk (fewer, less) miles to school than Martin.
  9. Mehgan smoked (fewer, less) cigarettes this week than she did last week.
  10. (Fewer, Less) than six cases of copier paper remain in the storage room.
  11. Roderick consumes (fewer, less) salt during his meals now that he has been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
  12. Pat decided to eat (fewer, less) pastries for breakfast than he normally does.
  13. Pat decided to drink (fewer, less) soda for lunch than he normally does.
  14. People wear (fewer, less) clothing in Miami than they do in Boston.
  15. Jesse ate (fewer, less) strawberries than Ellen [ate].
  16. Jesse drank (fewer, less) grape juice than Ellen [drank].
  17. Lisa takes (fewer, less) time in finishing a test than Jenny.
  18. Lisa takes (fewer, less) minutes in finishing a 5K run than Jenny.
  19. Bert can sprint forty meters in (fewer, less) than six seconds.
  20. It costs (fewer, less) than five dollars to eat a good breakfast at Denny’s.
  21. Jackson makes (fewer, less) dollars per hour than Danny.
  22. No (fewer,less) than ten thousand people attended the concert in Dayton.
  23. (Fewer, less) people attended the concert in Cincinnati than in Dayton.
  24. There are (fewer, less) players on the rugby squad this year than there were last year.
  25. No (fewer, less) than seven buildings are planned for the resort.
  26. The resort will comprise (fewer, less) than ten acres.
  27. Olivia brought (fewer, less) pencils to school than Anna.

Links for Using "Fewer Than" and "Less Than" Correctly

  • Grammar Girl

    Mignon Fogarty offers some excellent advice, examples, and memory tricks to understand the correct use of "fewer" and "than." The article is somewhat text-heavy, but it is, as most Grammar Girl material, very readable.

  • The New York Times

    Philip B. Corbett offers some practical advice, advice that writers of the New York Times try to follow: "[U]se less with a number that describes a quantity considered as a single bulk amount: The police recovered less than $1,500; It happened less than five years ago; The recipe calls for less than two cups of sugar."

  • Syntaxis. The Syntaxis Blog

    Ellen Jovin makes clear why phrases "less than two weeks ago" are correct, when you can count weeks. She makes the distinction that when we discuss time, weight, and distance, we tend to think of a mass unit of time, not individual units. Take a look at the blog. It's worthwhile.

  • Capital Community College

    Here you have a solid explanation of the difference between "fewer" and "less" and the use of adjectives in general.