Less than or fewer than - tea cupsLess than or fewer than? This blog was requested by one of my LinkedIn readers in Edinburgh. Thanks Jo! She’s noticed that even journalists on the TV are using ‘less than’ when they mean ‘fewer than’.

Part of the reason is we tend to say ‘less than’ in everyday speech. So it’s understandable that we do the same when we write. However this will annoy people and lose you business.

An old-school former journalist I worked with explained it with:

Fewer than is for things you can count individually. Less than is for everything else.”

Here are some examples to make sure you don’t trip up.

Fewer than

‘Fewer than’ actually means ‘not as many as’. Many is a word that we use for individual things. So:

  • Fewer than 10 items in this queue.
  • There are fewer than five bottles of beer left. What a disaster!

Try saying “11 items? There are not as much as that.” Or “Six bottles? There are not as much as that.” Sounds weird? Want to use ‘many’? Then you should use ‘fewer’ when the number is decreasing.

Less than

‘Less than’ means ‘not as much as’. We use ‘much’ when describing things you can’t count individually or which don’t have a plural. Examples include:

  • There is less snow and ice than last year.
  • I am having less fun now I have to do tax returns.

Less than for distance, amount, or time

‘Less than’ can be also used for nouns that describe distance, amount or time. Take a look at these:

  • New Year is in less than four weeks – not: New Year is in fewer than four weeks.
  • It’s less than two miles to the pub – not: It’s fewer than two miles to the pub.


Percentages are single quantities. They are not countable, so that means using ‘less than’. However when they refer to something countable, then you should use ‘fewer than’.

Confused? These examples should help:

  • Fewer than 30 percent of households have chimneys wide enough for Santa. – This is because you can count households individually.
  • Less than 20 percent of the gin is left in the bottle. – This is because gin is an uncountable blob (technical term).

Need to check?

Just Google your phrase using both options. The one with more results is probably the one you should use.

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