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Usage error on the rise — less/fewer, amount/number

Quick reminder: It’s fewer people, fewer cars, fewer shares.

Not less people, less cars, less shares.

If you would say, “many” instead of “much,” as in “many people,” not “much people,” that’s one way to check yourself.

This mistake has always been on our Eagle Eye hotspot editing list, but we are hearing it a lot more lately.

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Read on if you want the nitty-gritty.

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The unofficial version of the rule is: If you could conceivably count the items (people, minutes, shares and other discrete entities), it’s “fewer.”

It doesn’t matter if you won’t count; the guideline is if you could. In other words, are the items discrete or, by contrast, do they blend or connect? My skin contains my body, and your skin contains yours, so we are two discrete entities — that is, individually distinct and physically unconnected.

If you can’t count, like for sand on the beach or water in the ocean, it’s “less.” Less sand, less water. If you change it to “grains of sand,” you can say fewer grains. If you say “drops of water,” you can say fewer drops.

When in doubt, say “fewer,” and then use your ear. It will sound *more* wrong if you use fewer incorrectly than if you use less incorrectly.  For example, it sounds really wrong to say “fewer water.” But even if you are accustomed to incorrectly saying less people, “fewer water” probably sounds worse to your ear than “fewer people.”

Distance, Money, Time, Weight

Things get tricky when you talk about money. Are you looking at six individual dollar-bills in someone’s hand? (If so, it’s fewer.) Or are you talking about $6? (Less) The unofficial rule here is to see if the term would be used as singular instead of plural, as in “The cost is $6.” If you say “is,” not “are,” than you can say, “It costs less than $6.”

This plural/singular test also applies to distance, time and weight.

  • “Four miles is (singular) is my goal. I won’t run less than four miles.
  • “We have to subtract the time you guys rode in truck. Those (plural) miles don’t count. He ran two fewer miles than you did, since he rode in the truck for two more miles than you did.”

The less/fewer rule also applies to “amount/number.”

  • A huge number of people were still waiting in line at 11 p.m. Saturday. Fewer waited the following night.
  • A huge amount of water seeped out overnight. There was less in the tank by morning.

If you would say, “as many people,” then it’s “number” and “fewer.”

If you would say, “as much water,” then it’s “amount” and “less.”

  • Many, Fewer, Number 
  • Much, Less, Amount 

When in doubt, you can test with “as many/as much,” and obey your ear. If “many people” sounds right, you’d say, “fewer people.”

Since “much people” sounds wrong, you know it’s not “less people.”

If you still want more, here’s Grammar Girl on the subject.

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Lauren Edwards is a former reporter for the Associated Press. She has been creating, customizing and delivering workshops for science and technology teams since 2000.

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