Fewer is more

by Tom Albrighton 17 December 2009 Copywriting reviews

Does anybody still bother about the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’? Clearly not Starbucks, who are distributing the napkin pictured below in their outlets as I write.


It should of course be ‘fewer napkins’. I guess, when it comes to grammar, Starbucks couldn’t care fewer.

The rule is very simple: if you can count what you’re talking about, you should say ‘fewer’; if you can’t, it’s ‘less’. Or, to put it another way, if the subject is plural, it’s ‘fewer’, while a singular noun requires ‘less’.

The following examples all highlight the distinction:

  • ‘less alcohol’, but ‘fewer units’
  • ‘less sugar’, but ‘fewer lumps’
  • ‘less inaccuracy’, but ‘fewer mistakes’

The problem may be exacerbated because there is no such distinction in the other direction: we can say ‘more’ regardless of whether we’re talking about a number or not (as the Starbucks napkin illustrates).

Of course, this is the pedant’s view. Being charitable to Starbucks, they may have felt that ‘less’ was better in their situation and made a conscious decision to break the rule. It’s shorter (which is always better, ceteris paribus) and more memorable, since ‘less’ and ‘more’ are so often linked together or contrasted (e.g. ‘less is more’).

Perhaps people are becoming less concerned with this type of precision. But the point is that while adhering to the rules makes no difference to readers who don’t care, breaking them really grates with those who do. (Unless, of course, it makes you sound ludicrously stiff and formal, as with ‘whence’, ‘to whom’ and similar constructions.) For the same reason, we might observe unwritten rules like leaving the bottom button of a waistcoat undone, or scooping a soup spoon away from ourselves – people who care will notice.

So there’s a logical case for accuracy, just to maximise impact. Grammar rules!

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