Question: I really enjoyed your article about the differences between “effect” and “affect.” I wonder if sometime you could also write an article about the usages of “few” and “less.” No one seems to know there are situations where one should use “few.” Even news anchors botch this usage. – Rita Fugit,Carmel
Answer: Fewer people do seem to be using the word “few” these days. Luckily, I had a high school English teacher who was a stickler for the rule, so I’ve got an answer for you.
As in my first sentence above, “few” or “fewer” should be used when describing plural nouns that are discretely quantifiable. These are also called count nouns, which, to put it simply, means you can easily count them. A simple test is to put a number in front of the noun you are looking to modify. If you can say “seven people,” “or 25 people” or “1 million people,” and the phrase makes sense, then you have a count noun and should use “fewer.”
“Less” comes into play for mass nouns – which, if you read a lot of Slylock Fox like I did when I was young, you may have already deduced are nouns that are not easily countable. These are going to be more abstract subjects: crime, pollution, beauty, etc. So, there may be less crime today than in past decades, but there are fewer criminals.
There are quirks to the rule, of course. Some nouns – I don’t have a list for you, sorry – have both a mass and count form. Take a word like “fear.” If you go sky diving to conquer a fear of heights, you might have one fewer fear than you did before. If you turned on a flashlight in a dark room, however, you would be less fearful. In the first example, “fear” serves as a count noun because it is specific and quantifiable – the fear of heights, closed spaces, broccoli, whatever. In the second example, “fear” is a mass noun because it is used more abstractly. You can have seven distinct fears, but you don’t feel seven distinct fears – you just feel fear.
One final item of note before I let you go: Throw out the last 350 or so words when it comes to time, distance and money. We use “less” for these. You have less than $50. You run a mile in less than 10 minutes. Et cetera.