In honor of Jen’s comment where she caught me making a classic SAT grammar mistake in a blog post, I wanted to write a brief post about the usage of “less” and “fewer.”
Typically we view the words “less” and “fewer” as interchangeable, and in fact most of us (myself included) just use “less” all the time and go years without speaking the word “fewer.”
However, there is actually a specific rule for when you use “less” or “fewer,” and the SAT Writing section will occasionally test your knowledge of this rule.
I’d say I see the “less or fewer” topic come up about once every other SAT exam; it’s an easy way to gain a few points every now and then. Plus, it never hurts to learn something new.
“Less” is used for things that CAN’T be counted with numbers:
You can’t count how much root beer you have in your glass, so you have “less root beer” as you sip it. You can’t count “sand,” so this beach has less sand than that beach. You can’t “loyalty,” so he is less loyal than she is.
“Fewer” is used for things that CAN be counted with numbers:
You can count bottles of root beer, so if you’re on a binge, you have “fewer bottles of root beer” as you finish case after case of it. You can count “grains of sand” (although you probably don’t want to), so this hourglass has “fewer grains of sand” in it than that larger one does. You can count friends, so he has fewer friends than she does (because he is less loyal).
One Less or Fewer Exception:
We use “less” for MONEY, TIME, and DISTANCE, even when these things are measured with counting numbers. “My house is less than 10 miles from your house.” “I make less than 1,000,000 dollars a year.” “My last open-house gig lasted less than 10 minutes before I was booed off the stage.”
When it comes to the use of “less” or “fewer” on the SAT writing section, that’s really all there is to it! Now you might start noticing that grocery express checkout lines say “10 items or less,” which is totally incorrect according to the SAT grammar rules.
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