Another grammar rant for you, this time one of my favourite English language confusions: the difference between less and fewer. Once again, it’s easy when you know how. Usually.
Let’s start with a maths lesson – don’t worry if you don’t like maths, just bear with me. Numbers come in many types, but the two types we’re interested in here are discrete (not discreet) versus continuous. Shoe sizes, for example, are discrete. You can be a size 7 or 7.5, but you can’t take a 7.2333 shoe (although I think my right foot probably would if it could) any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. On the other hand, you can have 7.2333 ounces of flour.
Right, now I’ve told you that, forget it. It’s probably only helpful if you’re me; I don’t think it’s going to help anyone else with less and fewer at all.
When it comes to words (nouns, specifically), what’s important is the difference between what I call Quantity Nouns and Numeric Nouns. Quantity Nouns are nouns which come in quantities, Numeric Nouns are nouns which can be counted.
For example, I might have some boys (boys being a numeric noun) but some flour (flour being a quantity noun – you can’t have a number of flours). If you came along with some boys and some flour and gave everything to me, I’d have more boys and more flour, because the word “more” works for both quantity and numeric nouns. But if you came back later and took away what you’d given me, I’d have fewer boys but less flour.
FEWER goes with NUMERIC NOUNS
LESS goes with QUANTITY NOUNS
Here’s an even easier way of remembering it…
If you can replace the noun with “things” then you use fewer, if you would replace the noun with “stuff”, use less.
The only problem left to look out for is that quantity nouns often get mixed with numeric noun amounts. For example: bags of flour, ounces of sugar, loaves of bread. If I have three bags of flour and you take one away, I’ve got FEWER bags (things) but LESS flour (stuff).
And the checkout lines? Well they are just wrong. Items = Things, so you can’t have less items!