Less and fewer both mean a smaller amount of something. However, grammarians argue endlessly about when you should use one over the other. Here’s what you need to know.
The basic rule is that you should use fewer with plural nouns, and less with singular or uncountable nouns:
There is now less time on the clock, but we are fewer points behind.
In this example, time is a singular noun, whereas points is plural and countable. Here are some more examples:
Their cows produced less milk this week. (milk is an uncountable noun)
The conference had fewer attendees this time. (attendees is plural and countable)
We took less luggage this time. (luggage is treated as an uncountable noun)
We took fewer items of luggage this time. (items is a plural noun and can be counted)
However, people break the rules all the time. For example, many groceries stores have a sign that reads “10 items or less.” Sticklers would argue that this should be fewer, but the usage is so widespread that many grammarians have accepted that sometimes less can be used in the plural.
You can also break the basic rule by using less in relation to time, money, distance, or units of measurements. Here are some examples of acceptable usage:
Less than two hours are left until the test.
We have less than $100 in the bank.
It’s less than three kilometers till the finish line.
You need less than three tablespoons of sugar.
All of these are acceptable uses, and often may be superior to fewer. However, if your writing in a formal context you may be better off using fewer–at least if you don’t want to defend your word choices constantly!
The phrase one less is perfectly acceptable, as one is singular:
I shot one less duck this time.
Whereas fewer is used exclusively for plural nouns that are countable, less has a wider range and can often take the place of fewer. This is especially the case in popular usage and when referring to time, money, distance, or units of measurement.