The Lesser, the Fewer

In my ongoing series on grammar nazism, today’s post is about when to use “fewer” and when to use “more.”  As I write this, I’m listening to a podcast about cryptocurrencies. The host just announced that there are now “less coins available for purchase,” and my spleen –which is weirdly connected to the grammar portion of my forebrain– immediately sprung a painful leak.

At this point, I have to point out that I am not an expert on language or grammar. I have a minor in anthropological linguistics. But that’s a far cry from an actual meaningful formal language qualification.

Rather, I’m just a middle-aged fuddy-duddy who doesn’t like it when the kids mess with my precious words. So if any actual language experts disagree with my position, I am happy to learn; just leave your guidance in the comments section.

In general, the distinction between “less” and “fewer” is easy to remember.  It has to do with whether or not the thing one is talking/writing about is countable.  If it isn’t countable, then it is likely fluid.

If it’s countable, then we use fewer. If it’s not countable, then we use less. Got it?

For example, water is fluid, but not countable. “How many water do you have?” has no meaning. But, “How many bottles of water do you have?” definitely has meaning.  This is tangentially related to an earlier post on elliptical sentences.

Since water is fluid, we can say that there is less water in this bottle than in that pool.

But bottles of water, apples, coins, koala bears, and penises are all countable. “The women’s swim team has fewer penises than the men’s football team.”

A grocery store check-out line should have a sign that says, “Eight items or fewer“, not “Eight items or less“, because “items” are always countable.

So far, so good.

It’s a little more complicated than that, though. This is because there are some countable items in our lives that we think of as fluid or non-countable.

Who has more money, Bill Gates or your Mom?  If the answer is not Bill Gates, then I really want to meet your Mom. Probably, though, your Mom is poorer than Bill Gates. So does she have less money or fewer money?  Money is countable, after all.

I think we’d all agree that less money sounds more right. This is because, while dollars and coins are countable, money as an abstract concept is considered a fluid substance.

But of course it’s even more complicated than that. I have $20 in my pocket and you have $15 in your pocket. Do you have less than $20 or fewer than $20?  Clearly, less sounds more correct, even though $20 is a countable quantity.

This weirdness is because, even though we can count 20 one dollar bills, the substance we are talking about is an abstract thing that we call “twenty bucks” that is more of a quality than a quantity.

Thus, it is grammatically correct to say either, “I have less than $20” or “I have fewer than 20 $1 bills.”

Confused?  Good. Hopefully, though, you are fewer confused than when you first got here.