When to Use “Fewer” and When to Use “Less”
- On December 21, 2016
I was pedaling away in spin class, gasping for air during a particularly long song, when the instructor yelled, “You have fewer than three minutes to go.” Then, perhaps to distract us from the pain of those remaining minutes, she explained the difference between fewer and less. “I just learned it the other day,” she said proudly.
Problem is she didn’t have it quite right.
She said, correctly, that you use fewer when you’re referring to things you can count (donuts, for example—but she didn’t actually say donuts, seeing as we were in exercise class) and less for things you can’t count (say, food), which would explain why she said fewer than three minutes.
However, in the case of fewer and less exceptions abound. When you’re talking about time, money, distance, weight, temperature, and speed, you use less, so she should have said, You have less than three minutes to go.
Similarly, you would say:
• Can you get a ticket to Hamilton for less than $500?
• You have less than fifty miles to go.
• My daughter weighed less than three pounds at birth.
• Let’s move to a place where it’s never less than 75 degrees and sunny.
• My father drives less than 30 miles an hour, which we tell him can be more dangerous than speeding. (He doesn’t care.)
Thank you, Emma, for always giving me a great workout—and today’s topic, too.