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, as explained in Why typos kill business and how to avoid them.

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 champagne 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’.

One way to remember this is to warp the film title A Few Good Men and call it A Few Good Men-y. With apologies to director Rob Reiner.

A Few Good Men

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 my rollerblades have been stolen.

Distance, amount, or time

“By George, I’ve got it!” Excellent. But just to confuse things, ‘less than’ can be used for nouns that describe distance, amount or time. Eh? 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

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? I don’t blame you. Here are some examples:

  • 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 sherry is left in the bottle. – This is because sherry is an uncountable blob (technical term).

Need to check?

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

How I can help

If you have a burning conundrum about words, social media etiquette or web content then please get in touch or leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!