‘Less chairs’ or ‘fewer chairs’?

A couple of people have asked me what I think about the use of ‘less’ when – according to them – it should be ‘fewer’. For example, if someone says ‘I know I should eat less burgers’, grammatically that is wrong. It should be ‘fewer burgers’.

Although can you imagine anyone you know saying ‘I know I should eat fewer burgers’? I can’t.

Spoken English versus written English

The thing is that ‘fewer’ actually sounds wrong in that particular sentence. This is probably because there is a difference between what we say (spoken English) and what we write.

If we ever do. Not many of us write much nowadays, unless you count texting, Facebook, and so on. I have lots of lovely unused pens now! But there’s an interesting exhibition on writing at the British Library, which I’ve just been to myself: http://www.bl.uk/writing

If you were writing a formal letter or email, or something where you could lose marks for appearing a bit sloppy, like an essay or exam, you may still need to use ‘fewer’.

‘So how do I know when ‘less’ is wrong?’ you ask…

It’s actually quite simple. You should use ‘fewer’ when you are referring to plural items. Plural meaning ‘more than one’, and usually shown by ‘-s’ being added to the noun:

‘You see fewer hedgehogs these days, don’t you?’

Millenials are having fewer babies.

BUT

Fewer people use cash to buy their shopping.

There’s no ‘-s’ plural in that example, but if you think about it, ‘people’ is definitely plural in meaning, as there’s got to be more than one person before you use the word ‘people’. The same thing applies to ‘children’, as in:

Half the world is having fewer children.

If you put ‘less’ in that sentence, it would be considered wrong in correct grammar.

So when is ‘less’ correct, then?

When the word you are referring to is NOT plural, and has no ‘-s’, like sugar, weight, temperature, or independence. Things in groups, substances, some abstract concepts. These are sometimes known as ‘mass nouns’ or ‘uncountable nouns’.

Furniture is one of those nouns. So if you compare ‘chair’ with ‘furniture’, you can make ‘chair’ plural but you can’t really make ‘furniture’ plural, can you?

So really we should say ‘fewer chairs’ and ‘less furniture’. But I’m not expecting to stem the tide on this point, as I think ‘less’ sounds more modern and natural somehow.

I think this is a British English problem, not usually found in American English, but perhaps our American correspondents can enlighten me on that! Please comment and follow if you’d like to.

3 thoughts on “‘Less chairs’ or ‘fewer chairs’?

  1. I’ve lived in the UK, (born in US) for over 25 years now and it really struck me as odd here when people said ‘less’ where ‘fewer’ was correct. I now don’t know what they say in the US and if this is a common mistake but when I got here in the ’90s it did sound odd to me so maybe the US was more grammatically correct then? I often correct my English teenagers when they use ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’ in speech!

    1. Yes, I thought so. Thanks for corroborating. When I used to do research on dictionary use in the US (many moons ago) I was always struck by the beautiful copperplate handwriting that was being taught in schools, and the insistence by teachers that students should get their grammar right. Dictionary use in class was also the norm then, and teachers regularly taught lessons in how to use a dictionary. It won’t be the same now, I’m sure…

  2. I always thought of it in terms of continuous vs discrete variables, so discrete things use fewer and continuous things use less (though this doesn’t really work with furniture etc and not that I know anything about grammar!).

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