November 1, 2010
While at the grocery store this morning, I was greatly irritated—and inspired to write a grammar post.
No, it’s not about the dreaded greengrocers’ apostrophe, although I cringed as I read signs like “Fuji apple’s” and “Portuguese roll’s”—it’s about something a bit more tricky: the use of “fewer” versus “less.”
You see, while I was waiting in the check-out line, my eyes wandered past the tabloid magazines to the express lane sign, “20 items or less,” and the editor in me went berserk.
What’s wrong with the sign, you ask? That’s what the sign says at your market, you say? Well, it’s grammatically incorrect. Because the sign should read “20 items or fewer.”
Yes, “fewer” and “less” have the same meaning. But, they have different uses depending on the context.
The rule is this: Use “fewer” with things you can count individually or things in the plural (like grocery items or dollar bills). Use “less” with things you can’t count or that don’t have a plural (like glue or air).
Think about it the next time you’re in line at the store. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some examples:
A tweet must be fewer than 141 characters. (you can count characters)
If you put less water in the tub, it won’t overflow. (you can’t count water individually—and it doesn’t have a plural)
The rosebush has fewer buds this year than last. (you can count rosebuds)
As he got older, he listened to less music. (you can’t count music individually—and it doesn’t have a plural)