It’s research paper season in my world right now, and as I read page after page of student work, one mistake keeps surfacing: confusion regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less.”
Most of the time, people probably aren’t even aware that they are getting it wrong. After all, saying something like, “I should have eaten less cookies” really doesn’t sound that bad (unless you know better, which you are about to). But it is wrong. What the regretful victim of the sweet tooth should have said was: “I should have eaten fewer cookies.” Now, if she had been talking about cake, she would have been correct in her use of “less.” “I should have eaten less cake” is correct.
So why is “I should have eaten less cake” correct where “I should have eaten less cookies” is incorrect? Well, whereas “cookies” are several, countable items, “cake” is one, mass item. If you eat less cake or less pie, you eat fewer slices of cake or pie. The cake and the pie are singular, mass items, but the slices are individual, countable pieces.
Basically, you use “fewer” when discussing a number of individual items that you can count–crackers, cookies, hours, vegetables. You use “less” when discussing one item that can be larger or smaller in size.
For example, when you have fewer minutes, you have less time. Time is one thing made up of a bunch of minutes.
Similarly, when you eat fewer pieces of cake, you eat less cake. The cake is one baked good made up of several pieces.
For one final example: If you eat fewer meals, you might eat less food. Food is not a countable item, but the number of meals you eat in a day is.
Hopefully, you now have fewer questions and less confusion about the English language! 😉