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Talking about quantities and amounts

You can use adjectives to describe or compare how much there is of certain things, like comparing how much money people have, for instance. You might say something like:

Tom has less money than Bob.

The adjective ‘less’ is used to describe the noun ‘money’. The other common adjective used to describe quantities and amounts is ‘fewer’:

Ever since we stopped advertising, there have been fewer customers.

There is often a lot of confusion about when to use the adjective ‘less’ and when to use ‘fewer’. Well, there’s a general rule, which goes like this:

  • ‘Fewer’ is used when you’re talking about quantities that you can count, like the number of coins you might have in your wallet.

  • ‘Less’ is used when you’re talking about quantities that you cannot easily count, like how much water you have in your glass.

Of course, there are exceptions to most rules. There are situations when you do need to use ‘less’, even when you’re talking about something that you can count. Usually, this happens when you’re talking about an actual number of something, like this:

It’s less than 900 km to Sydney; you should be there in less than 9 hours.

Because we have two numerical quantities - ‘900 km’ and ‘9 hours’, we use the word ‘less’, even though we can count 900 and 9. But if you were talking about hours without mentioning specific amounts, you would use ‘fewer’:

You’ll waste fewer hours if you drive to Sydney tomorrow.

Because this sentence isn’t talking about a specific number of hours, and because the number of hours it takes to drive to Sydney is something you could count, use the adjective ‘fewer’.

Another way of looking at it is to think about whether the thing you’re talking about can be measured by counting. The amount of water you have in a cup can’t be measured by counting (you’d have to use units of mL to describe it) so you use the adjective ‘less’. But something like the number of people on the bus you catch can be counted - 23, or 46, for instance, so you use the adjective ‘fewer’.