Pavement pedantry: fewer vs. less

An unexpected item is in the bagging area – and it’s the word ‘less’.

By: Nicola Robey,   1 minute


An unexpected item is in the bagging area – and it’s the word ‘less’.

As a grammar pedant, even a trip to the supermarket can be a ruffling experience. The culprit – a  ‘Ten  items or less’ sign. The basket only aisle should actually read,  ‘Fewer than ten items’ – which perhaps isn’t as catchy, but is grammatically correct.

While this may seem like a small and unimportant mistake, the distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ is something every sub-editor worth their salt will pick up on. Because they’re not actually the same thing.

Grammar nit-picker Ian Bruton-Simmons, of the Queen’s English Society, thinks we should be up in arms about the dilution of the less and fewer debacle. “Language should not be confused because it weakens it”, he says. “It’s common sense – fewer is for numbers of separate items or people, less is for quantities not thought of in numbers: there were fewer people in the shops because there was less money,” he says. Learning the distinction actually makes language way more efficient, and gives you another way of asserting your linguistic pedantry on friends and family (which they love).

So wield your red pens, and descend in grammatical fury towards your local supermarket. And fetch us some biscuits while you’re there.

Rule of thumb:

Use ‘fewer’ with objects that can be counted. Like days and people, and items in your basket (looking at you Tesco). ‘Fewer people might get this wrong’. 

Use ‘less’ when referring to things that can’t be individually counted. Such as, ‘feeling less confused about this grammar issue’. 

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