Is it less — or fewer?

Has a grammatical misstep ever stopped you in your tracks? Here’s the sentence that did it for me today:

“Since few people have ever seen a legitimate Sealand passport (less than 300 exist today) it was difficult for these to be easily detected as forgeries.”

There seems to be a lot of confusion about “fewer” and “less,” so here’s an extra-simplified explanation of the difference between the two.

Use “fewer” with objects that can be counted. Sealand passports can be individually counted, so the sentence above should read, “fewer than 300 exist today.”

Say “less” for things that can’t be counted. For example, “I drank less than she did,” or “I have less courage than Bob.” You can’t count drinking or courage. (Of course, if you’re talking about the number of beers you drank, you’d say “I drank fewer beers than she did.” Beers can be counted — until you’ve had too many, perhaps.)

As with most grammar rules, there are exceptions: When referring to time or money, it’s common usage to say “less,” even if the units of time or money can be counted. “I have less than 10 minutes,” and “I have less than $20 to my name,” are perfectly OK.

Simple, right? And one less grammar rule to worry about.

Text and images © Heather Munro.