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Monday, 24 March 2014

Grammar Rules: More, Much, Fewer, Less

Have you seen the sign below?

It should be "fewer than 6 items only".

Less vs. fewer and much vs. many seem interchangeable, but they're not. Yes, they explain the same concept, but they're used in different ways.

"Fewer" and "many" are used for things that you can count. "Less" and "much" are used for things that you can't count.

Consider these examples:

Example 1: Fewer & Many

There aren't many apples left. How many apples did you eat?
I ate fewer apples than you ate.

There isn't much apples left. How much apples did you eat?
I ate less apples than you ate.

Apples are countable. You can tell me that you ate 5 apples. You should use many / fewer here.

Example 2: Less & Much

There isn't much coffee left. How much coffee did you drink?
I drank less coffee than you drank.

There isn't many coffee left. How many coffee did you drink?
I drank fewer coffee than you drank.

Coffee isn't countable. In response to, "how much coffee did you drink?" You wouldn't respond with "five." That wouldn't make sense.

(Unless you're talking about cups of coffee. That's countable, and you would use many / fewer there.)

Test Yourself
Consider these two questions:
  1. How many pies did you order this year? I ordered fewer than I did last year.
  2. How much pie did you order this year? I ordered less than I did last year.
Which one is correct? 

Trick question. They both are!

The first one can be responded to with a number and that's it. You could just say "three" and that would make perfect sense. You would be saying, "I ordered three pies." So, you should use many / fewer here.

The second one cannot. If you said just, "three," it'd be unclear what you mean. Three pies? Three slices? Three pounds? Three crates? Who knows?!? So, you should use much / less here. 

Of course, you could respond to either question with just "three pies" and that would be correct too.

The countable = fewer / many is basically true. But there are some exceptions with time, money, and distance. Here, we use "less" and "much" even when it is countable.
  • I paid less than 100 dollars for my new shoes.
  • I ran less than five miles today.
  • My test took less than two hours.
I suppose the reason that there is an exception for money, time, and distance is that people are thinking of these as uncountable quantities, sort of like "coffee" is not countable (unless it's "cups of coffee"). 

You could technically say "I paid fewer than $100 dollars," but then that conjures up images of physically handing over a stack of 100 dollar bills. When we say "100 dollars," we aren't literally saying "100 dollar bills." We're referring to $100 in the amorphous, vague, uncountable sense. (If that explanation as to why there's an exception doesn't make sense, then don't worry about it. Just remember that time, money, and distance is an exception.)

Rule of Thumb: 
  • "Fewer" goes with "many" and "less" goes with "much." Fewer / many are used for specific, countable items with specific, countable quantities. Less / much are used for vague, amorphous quantities.
  • Time, money, and distance
Having trouble remembering? Think of it this way: you would never say, "I was fewer mad than you." No, you would say "I was less mad than you."

What about "more"?
 "More" can used for countable or uncountable things. It's the converse of both "less" and "fewer." 
  • How many pies did you order? Did you order fewer pies than you did last year? 
    No, I ordered more than I did last year.
  • How much pie did you order? Did you order less pie than you did last year? 
    No, I ordered more than I did last year.
At least that one's easy!

So the next time you see in that "10 items or less" in a grocery store, remember that it's wrong. Whole Foods at least gets it right:

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