The English language is littered with words that at first glance appear to have similar meanings, yet which can easily be confused. Let's explore two favorites. Consider the following two slightly different sentences:
- "Fewer people attended our presentation."
- "Less people attended our presentation."
Do you think the first example above is more correct? Or does the second item sound right to you?
Or, does the apparently fine difference in meaning between "fewer" or "less" really even matter if our message is understood?
Some readers might consider that both alternatives are fine in any situation that calls for their use.
After all arguably, most people whose first language is English would probably instantly understand what the writer is saying whether we use "fewer" or "less", so isn't that what effective communication is all about?
All fair comments.
Nevertheless, from a grammatical standpoint, only the first example above is correct, yet many today may only use the second example by default for every use or instance.
Don't "fewer" and "less" essentially have the same definition? Which begs the question: if there are minor differences, does that really matter?
I believe the answer to our question is, yes — if you want to be considered a professional communicator — though times are changing. No if you don't know or care about the differences, or you think your readers won't either. But also consider, what can you lose if you're wrong.
Word details, word choices can matter. People expect others to make mistakes yet will expect you, as a writer, speaker, presenter or website provider, to know how to write, speak or communicate to a standard that is higher than non-professional writers, and to do so in a way that is expected from a professional.
Key tip: sometimes, the only difference between average and outstanding can be found in the details. Applying a little more attention to detail can make a surprisingly big impact to the outcome of your communication.
A Simple Guideline to Help You Easily Determine When to Use "Fewer" and When to Use "Less"
Here's are two simple rules to help you almost instantly make the right word choice:
- If the topic to which your sentence refers is plural, use "fewer".
- If the topic of your sentence is singular, use "less".
For example, in the plural topics of "colors", "diseases" and "rain showers", we can have:
- Fewer colors.
- Fewer diseases.
- Fewer rain showers.
Or in the singular topics of "color", "disease" and "rain", we can have:
- Less color.
- Less disease.
- Less rain.
To Polish Or Not To Polish: That Is Your Question
More recently, I have noticed a trend or tendency even among top UK television news presenters that ignores these subtle differences and many simply prefer to use "less" in almost every instance today.
Of course, that is their choice. Yet what does it say? Maybe, the producers judge that few will notice the differences.
Even so, my recommendation is to learn and understand when to use "fewer" or "less". Although the issue may seem trivial, the end result can indeed give your writing, speaking or presentation an extra touch of professionalism that your audience may notice and appreciate. Sometimes, a single detail can separate you from getting the job or project you seek.
Moreover sometimes, your readers, listeners, or viewers may enjoy your polished delivery more, but not necessarily understand why at the time on interaction. Maybe, just maybe, the answer can be found in the details: polishing your work is exactly that, adding an extra shine to what might otherwise be a dull communication.
You can merge in the crowd — or you can master your art and stand out. Those who strive to stand out are ideally positioned to prosper.
Over to you.