Less vs. Fewer with Time, Distance, Money

www.RuthlessEditor.comI’ve written before about the difference between less and fewer:

Grammar Pet Peeves

Misused Words

Bad Grammar in Marketing

Making the right choice continues to be confusing — sometimes even for me!

In a recent editing project, I suggested a change in some copy related to end-of-life care decisions.

Here was the original wording:

When life expectancy is less than six months, use hospice to your advantage by getting more of what you want.

I thought “less than six months” should be changed to “fewer than six months.” Why?

Fewer is for things that can be counted. Less if for things that can’t be counted..

Six months can be counted, can be measured, so it should be: When life expectancy is fewer than six months.

But on second review, it didn’t sound right. Off to Google … even ruthless editors continue to learn about differences between grammar rules and grammar conventions.

As I mentioned, fewer generally is used when describing things that are countable, and less generally is used when describing quantities:

Fewer people registered for the conference, so we’ll need less food.
If you need fewer cookies for the reception, make less dough.
Because there were fewer storms this spring, we’ve had less flooding.

There are three areas where trying to apply the fewer/less grammar rule is problematic.

We often think of time, distance and money as singular or as a collective unit, and we pair them with a singular verb:

Twelve hours is (not are) a long time to be on the road.
It took me less (not fewer) than 12 hours to make the trip.

Do you think 15 miles is (not are) too far to drive?
We’re less (not fewer) than 15 miles from the lake.

To me, $1,000 (spoken as a thousand dollars) still is (not are) a lot of money.
I try to keep less (not fewer) than $100 (spoken as a hundred dollars) in cash in my billfold.

When the doctor who created the piece referred to life expectancy, he referred to the time frame of “less than six months.” Referring to those months as a unit of time rather than six individual months sounded better; he got it right.

Here’s one more tricky category: percentages and fractions. Would you say:

Fewer than five percent of the staff attended the training
Less than five percent of the staff attended the training.

Fewer than half of our employees attended the training.
Less than half of our employees attended the training.

Because percentages and fractions suggest quantities rather than individual items, I believe less than five percent and less than half sound better.

Some aspects of grammar are written in stone, but some are flexible. We can’t always trust our ear, as there are many cases where incorrect usage is repeated so often that it starts to sound right.

In this case, other grammar sources clarified the exceptions to using less with countable things and fewer with quantities.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)