'Less' and 'fewer' aren't just about mass nouns and count nouns

People who are careful about their grammar take extra care with “less” and “fewer.” Most of the time, the results are good. “Ben has fewer worries this year” sounds better than “Ben has less worries this year.”

But even though they make good choices most of the time, sticklers on the less-and-fewer issue usually don’t understand the grammar as well as they think they do. So when they take a hard line approach, they set themselves up for a fall.

Ask anyone who’s careful with “less” and “fewer” to explain the difference, and they’ll tell you this: “Less” is for mass nouns and “fewer” is for count nouns.

Mass nouns are things that aren’t counted, like “music,” “air” and “energy.” Count nouns, as the name suggests, can be counted: “song,” “molecule,” “volt.”

Mass nouns have no plural form. You say, “I love music,” not “musics.” You say, “I breathe air,” not “airs.” And you say, “He has so much energy,” not “so many energies.”

Count nouns have a plural form and a singular form. So you can say, “I like that song” or “I like those songs.” You can say, “one molecule” or “two molecules.” You can say “one volt” or “100 volts.”

So if it’s true you must use “fewer” for count nouns, then those grocery store express lane signs that say “10 items or less” are grammatically incorrect. After all, as any stickler will tell you, “item” is a count noun. And if count nouns require “fewer,” then those checkout lanes are wrong to use “less.”

A better guide for when to choose “less” or “fewer” isn’t about mass nouns and count nouns. It’s about singulars and plurals. Consider this scenario: You’re in the express lane, which is for 10 items or fewer, and you realize you have 11 items, so you take one out of your cart. You now have one less item, not one fewer item, since “item” is singular here. Here's the full story in my recent column.

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