The Difference Between “Few”, “Fewer”, and “Less”

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Today, let’s take a look at three important words that we often get mixed up: “few”, “fewer”, and “less”.

The Basic Rule

You might have heard that “fewer” is for things you can count (countable nouns). For example:

  • We have fewer apples than oranges in the fruit basket.
  • She eats fewer sweets now to improve her health.
  • Since they installed traffic lights along the road, there have been fewer accidents on the road.

You may also have heard that “less” is for things you can’t count (uncountable nouns). For example:

  • He drank less coffee after switching to tea.
  • I need less sugar in my tea than I used to.
  • With practice, you’ll experience less stress during exams.

Sounds simple, right? But, like many other rules, there are exceptions! Listen to me break down these rules for you in this episode of the My English Matters podcast.

You can also listen to this episode on SpotifyApple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

Rule Exceptions

When we say “write an essay of 250 words or less, why do we use “less” for words, which we can count?

Well, there are times when “less” can be used for things we can count. Here are instances where we use “less” with countable nouns:

  1. Distances:
    When we say less than three kilometres, we’re referring to a measurement rather than a specific count of kilometres.

  2. Sums of money:
    With sums of money, such as “I have less than twenty dollars in my wallet“, we’re talking about an amount rather than a precise number of dollars.

  3. Time and weight:
    We often say “less than five years” or “less than ten pounds“, emphasising the quantity rather than the individual counts.

Now, let’s talk about those signs we often see at the grocery store checkout that say “Twelve items or less”.

Some may argue that because “items” can be counted, then the sign should read “12 items or fewer”. Despite that, using “less” in this context is widely accepted.

However, it’s important to note that in formal writing, it’s better to use “fewer” for countable things.

For instance, saying “I made less mistakes” is acceptable when speaking and in informal writing. In formal writing, though, we should say “I made fewer mistakes”.

What about “few” and “a few”?

  • “Few” means a small number. It’s often used when we want to emphasise a small number or quantity of something.

    When we say “there were few people at the event”, we mean not many people were there.

  • “A few” means a small but noticeable amount.

    “I have a few friends coming over tonight” means several friends are coming.

To sum up:

  • “Fewer” means less of something you can count
  • “Less” means less of something you can’t count
  • “Few” means not many

Remember, however, that there are exceptions to this rule!

Knowing these rules and exceptions can help you get your message across more accurately, so make sure you remember them whenever you get confused!

That’s all for today’s lesson. I hope it helped you understand these words better.

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Hi there!

We’re Azimah, Amnah and Aisya from Malaysia. We created My English Matters as an online platform to help people improve their English.

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