JS Tip 77: From the Writing Workshops: Fewer and Less

Three weeks ago, the University of Utah opened its football season by defeating the University of Pittsburgh in overtime.

After the game, the Pittsburgh coach, Dave Wannstedt, said “Down the stretch Utah made less mistakes than we did.”

“Less mistakes than we did.”

Aaarrrrrggggghhh. Fewer and less.

Use fewer with objects you can count one-by-one.

      “Down the stretch Utah made fewer mistakes than we did.”

Because we can count the number of mistakes: One, two, three . . . fifteen, sixteen . . . .

      “Tuesday’s workshop had fewer participants than Monday’s workshop.”

Because we can count the number of participants. 

Use less with qualities or quantities you can’t count one-by-one.  

      “We had less publicity for Tuesday’s workshop.”

Because publicity is general. We’re not referring to specific flyers or radio spots.

      “Monday’s participants may have learned less because of the crowding.”

Because learning is general. It’s not specific enough to be counted. 

If you can count the items, use fewer: “Fewer rocks.”

If you can’t count the items, use less: “Less sand.”

The dreaded exception: Time and money.

Generally, use less even when talking specifics:

      “We have less than three minutes to defuse the device.” (Time: Dollars and cents.)  

      “We had less than eight dollars in the budget.” (Money: Hours and minutes.)

(About the only time you’d say “I have fewer than eight dollars” is when you’re referring to the paper dollars in your wallet.) 

What are your challenges? Let us know, and we’ll address them in future tips. We love this stuff.