fewer / less than thirty sheets

Discussion in 'English Only' started by broshion, Jun 8, 2009.

  1. broshion New Member

    <Moderator note: This thread is the result of merging two threads dealing with the same issue of "less than / fewer than". Nunty>

    I instinctively know that the correct form is "fewer" and not "less", but I cannot explain with 100% certainty the grammatical rule(s) behind that.

    I guess that it is because "fewer" implies a somewhat specific and tangible quantity, while "less" is used mostly when talking about abstract quantities.

    Could anyone confirm/confute my deductions?

    Thanks :)
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 16, 2009
  2. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    In theory, "fewer" is for countable nouns and "less" is for noncountable (uncountable?) nouns. In practice, at least in American English, it's very common to hear "less" in a context such as this rather than "fewer."
  3. Rational_gaze Senior Member

    British English
    Yes - technically, you should use 'fewer' when you are talking about a number of individual items (such as the sheets in your example). A lot of people wouldn't notice an 'incorrect' use of 'less' here though.

    'Less' should always be used when you're talking about something that isn't physically separate entities, such as when talking about water in general. Although if you talk about litres of water, then it changes back again.

    "I have less water..."
    "I have fewer litres of water..."

    "I have less paper..."
    "I have fewer sheets of paper..."
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2009
  4. broshion New Member

    Thank you for the lightning fast reply guys :)

    Glad to know that my deductions seem to be correct. I know that most people wouldn't mind either form, but I am teaching English to some and I would hate to pass on incorrect forms.

    Having learned English purely by chance/passive exposure sometimes the mechanics of the language could be quite elusive. (It happens with Italian too :))

    Love this forum!
  5. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    It's not as simple as it seems. Here is a useful note on exceptions to the general "rule".

    The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary has a note that is a brilliant example of fence-sitting, implying that there is a rule to violate, but not declaring a strong position one way or another:

  6. Rational_gaze Senior Member

    British English
    I think "less than three weeks", "less than $400", and "less than 50 miles" work because because we somehow see units of time, currency, and distance as fluid and gradual.

    "No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter" sounds wrong to me, and if I thought about it I would say "No fewer than..."

    "... or less" just sounds 'catchier' than "or fewer".
  7. jesusguime Banned

    There are less/fewer than 100 families living in the town.

    Do both less and fewer fit in the aboe and mean about the same? I can only accept fewer. Thanks for your opinions.
  8. SwissPete

    SwissPete Senior Member

    94044 USA
    Français (CH), AE (California)
    Fewer is right, because families are countable.
    Less is incorrect.
  9. broshion New Member

    Thanks everyone. I think I gathered enough information. ;)

    Appreciate your help.
  10. kalamazoo Senior Member

    US, English
    I think "less than three weeks" works because we consider "three weeks" as being a clump of time, and don't really think of it as three distinct weeks that we are counting. It's kind of like "less than a month." Except one week shorter, of course.
  11. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    Less than can be used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: less than three weeks; less than $400; less than 50 miles.

    In English, measures of time, amount and distance are singular.

    $20 is too much to pay for a hamburger.
    20 quarts is exactly the right amount.
    20 miles is as far as I can run

    Thus we say: $20 is less than $30.

    Bill has 20 pennies, and Sam has five nickels.
    20c is less money than 25c.
    Bill has less money, but Sam has fewer coins.

Share This Page