Fewer or Less
- On September 23, 2015
A popular daily newsletter arrived with this bit of information about DreamWorks Studios: “It produced less films and less profits than expected.”
That didn’t sound right.
The rule of thumb is to use fewer for things you can count (the number of DreamWorks films) and less when referring to amounts (things made up of items not easily counted), which would make the correct version of that sentence, “It produced fewer films and less profit.”
Yes, in my rewrite, I changed profits to profit, because it not only sounds better but in this construct, profit seems to be referring to an amount that is not necessarily countable.
As I was writing this post, I received an email from a neighbor: “I’m writing our building’s newsletter,” she said, “and I’m wrestling with the following line: New dogs lucky enough to take up residence here must weigh fewer than 40 pounds when fully grown. I think fewer is technically correct because you can count pounds, but it sounds wrong. What do you think?”
Turns out the rule about less and fewer comes with a few twists and turns. When you’re referring to money, time, distance, weight, and temperature, you use less than, not fewer than, so dogs living in our building must weigh less than 40 pounds. Here are some other examples:
• After her shopping spree, she had less than fifty dollars in her bank account.
• The party starts in less than two hours.
• We have less than ten miles to go.
• I don’t like to go outside when it’s less than 20 degrees.
Now back to DreamWorks and its profit problem. Another guideline to using fewer or less is to use fewer with plural items and less with singular items. According to that approach, you could say that DreamWorks produced fewer profits.
But I’m going with my ear and advising, “DreamWorks produced fewer films and less profit than expected.”