Before You Hit Publish, Week 8: Less vs. Fewer

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We’ve already talked about how my husband can be quite dorky when it comes to some English grammar things. He often is more riled up about various aspects than I am.

One of these issues is the distinction between less and fewer. There IS a difference, people of the world. We do not use these words interchangeably.

Similar is much versus many, but I don’t think people confused these nearly as often. Except for a lady at a baseball game I heard ask, “How much cousins do you have?” REALLY PEOPLE? Please tell me that you know that’s an incorrect sentence!


Grammar Girl brings up an excellent example in this article that is way better than what I will write here. At every grocery store, you see signs for “10 items or less.” My friends, this is a PRIME example of WRONG when it comes to less and fewer.

You use the words less or fewer when you want to know the amount of something, right? When that amount is something you can count–like the specific number of grocery items–the proper word to use is “fewer.”

  • I have fewer than 10 items in my grocery cart.
  • Please put fewer flowers in each vase.
  • That baseball team has fewer pitchers than the first one.

When it’s not something you can number, you want to use the word “less.”

  • My bedroom is less messy than my kitchen.
  • My dog eats less than my cat.
  • I need to spend less money on clothes.

Get this right, particularly if you’re an ESPN announcer, and you will win my husband’s adoration for life.

So next time you go to the grocery store, you can turn up your nose at the “10 items or less” signs, knowing they are blatantly incorrect. Because obviously, you can count that the person in front of you has 12 items.

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Reading Like a Writer: It can really help to go outside of your comfort zone as a reader. I used to do more book reviewing, and one I was surprised to love was Better by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon, and Better is a collection of essays about the hospital and health industry. It completely fascinated me and was incredibly well-written. With medical terminology, I think it would be very easy to lose many of your readers, but Gawande hits the perfect balance of jargon and plain old English.

So if you’re usually a fiction reader, like I am, pick up Better or another nonfiction work outside your comfort zone. It’s good for your brain–and your writing.

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