WOW 3

less and fewer

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Which one should I choose?

Look at the sentences below and see if you can decide whether less/least or fewer/fewest is standard.

  1. We definitely had less children in the class today.
  2. There are fewer jobs for graduates, so far more people apply for each post.
  3. It takes less courage to stand up and speak in public than to face the boss.
  4. ‘Ellie’s got the least ticks – so her work must be the worst this time,’ said Jack.
  5. The horse with the least faults and the least time on the clock will win the jumping round.

The answers are at the bottom of the page – if you identified the standard usage correctly, you probably don’t need to read the rest of the page!

If you’re not so sure … read on …

banana skin1bHow can I avoid slipping up?

The key lies in deciding what kind of noun the determiners less/least and fewer/fewest are preceding. Remember these two rules:

  1. if the nouns are countable and are marked with a plural inflection  (e.g. dogs, stories, children, mice), then you should use fewer/fewest
  2. if the nouns are uncountable (they have no plural form e.g. beef, luggage, information, news), then you should use less/least

Some nouns can be both countable and uncountable. In this case, you will have to look at the context.

That recipe needs less butter, so it’s healthier. → butter is an uncountable noun (indicating a general amount), so we use less 

I had fewer butters in the fridge after yesterday’s cooking!  → butter is a countable noun (indicating separate items i.e. packs of butter), so we use fewer 

The use of less with countable nouns is common in everyday usage. In informal conversation, people may talk about seeing ‘less films’ because ticket prices have gone up; in supermarkets, we regularly see a sign which identifies the  ‘5 items or less’ checkout.  Even formal broadcasters and newspapers can report the fact that there are ‘less disruptions’ on the road. In a formal context, however, it is better to opt for the standard form.

In your own writing or speech, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • is the noun in front of the determiner countable? → if the answer is YES, choose fewer/fewest
  • is the noun in front of the determiner uncountable?  if the answer is YES,  choose less/least
ANSWERS

The standard usage is in blue. Non-standard usage is crossed through – the standard version is in red.

  1. We definitely had less children in the class today. [children is a countable noun marked by an irregular -en plural inflection, so we use fewer
  2. There are fewer jobs for graduates, so far more people apply for each post. [jobs is a countable noun marked by a plural -s inflection, so we use fewer]
  3. It takes less courage to stand up and speak in public than to face the boss. [courage is an abstract, uncountable noun, so we use less]  
  4. ‘Ellie’s got the least ticks – so her work must be the worst this time,’ said Jack. [ticks is a countable noun marked with a plural -s inflection, so we use fewest]
  5. The horse with the least faults and the least time on the clock will win the jumping round. [faults is a countable noun with a plural -s inflection, so we use fewesttime is an abstract, uncountable noun, so we use least] 
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