Difference Between Less Than and Fewer Than

Key difference: The term ‘fewer than’ is used when it is possible to count the number of things, while the term ‘less than’ is used when it is not possible to count the number of things, that are being referred to in a sentence.

Often, the terms ‘less than’ and ‘fewer than’ are used interchangeably. Many people don’t realize that these two words do mean the same and should not be used in similar context. According to Dictionary.com, the given terms mean as follows:

  • Less - smaller in size, amount or degree
  • Fewer - of a small number

While, both the words signify a smaller quantity of something, each term has a specific usage under different circumstances.

The basic rule, in grammar, is that the term ‘less than’ is used for mass nouns, and the term ‘fewer than’ is used for count nouns. This rule can be understood with a few examples:

  • People these days are buying fewer newspapers.
  • Fewer students are opting to study science-related subjects.

Now, in the above sentences, the term ‘fewer’ is referring to the countable quantity i.e. count nouns, wherein the students and the newspapers can be easily counted or numbered.

  • There is less sugar in the jar than yesterday.
  • He has so less confidence in himself.

Here, in the above examples, the ‘less’ is referring the uncountable quantity i.e. mass nouns, wherein the quantity of sugar and the value of money cannot be counted or numbered easily.

Thus, from the above examples, one can understand that ‘less’ is used to specify the volume of a quantity, while ‘fewer’ is used to specify the number of a given quantity. Also, the term ‘less than’ refers to the degree, and the term ‘fewer than’ refers to quantity of any given noun.

However, there are rules and exceptions to live by, in the English language. And, these rules are to be followed while using the terms ‘less and fewer’. In recent times, the term ‘less than’ is more frequently and formally used instead of ‘fewer than’, such as:

  • He has less than 100 days to complete the story.
  • They got divorced in less than 2 years.
  • His height is less than the normal 2ft.

Here, in these examples, the term ‘less than’ is used to specify the amount, time and distance i.e. the term ‘less’ can be used in sentences, wherein the given number can hold its own value, and there is an expression of measurement with time or distance.

The bottom line is that the term ‘less’ is more common, and is widely used all the time, even when there are few instances for using the term ‘fewer’. Though, if possible, it can be remembered that if a noun is preceded by a number, then it should be modified with the term ‘fewer’. Otherwise, less is best.

Comparison between Less Than and Fewer Than:

 

Less Than

Fewer Than

Definition

The term is used to refer to small size, amount or degree of a given quantity.

The term is used to refer to ‘a small number’ of a given quantity.

Used for

It is used for mass nouns.

It is used for count nouns.

Reference

It refers to the degree of a given noun.

It refers to the quantity of a given noun.

Specify

It is used to specify the volume of a quantity.

It is used to specify the number of a quantity.

Examples

  • I have less than 20 minutes to reach home.
  • She is less than average.
  • They brought less flowers home.
  • I have fewer ideas than everyone else.
  • There should be fewer books on the table.
  • He has fewer than 100 rupees in his wallet.

Image Courtesy: moneysavingmom.com, thebakerrealtygroup.wordpress.com

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