The red line: less vs. fewer

Jul 23, 2014

Dear Freelance Editor,

I recently got back a first draft of a press release that I have been writing for a freelance client. Their only comment: “Okay. Could you use less commas?

First of all: “Okay”? Come on. I’ve been working so hard on this stupid thing! Trust me, NOBODY would come to their event without my careful, considerate wordsmithing.

Second of all, is it less or fewer commas? I say it’s fewer, but right now I’m bitter, and also want to think that they are dummies.

Am I Just Being Petty

Dear Am I Just Being Petty,

Well, yes – you are being a mite petty. This is, however, a human response to insipid feedback to your hard work. Feel free to roll your eyes, kick a chair, and mutter threateningly at the computer screen in the privacy of your own home. I like to pretend that I’m a straight-up Bond villain in these moments of frustration: “Visionless fools! One day THEY WILL ALL SEE,” etc.

That being said, thank you for bringing up one of my favorite grammatical distinctions!

Less and fewer are often misused, but the rules distinguishing the two are (mostly) refreshingly clear.

USE FEWER WHEN: You are referring to something that can be counted when plural – puppies, umbrellas, pennies, coffee beans, people, dummies, water buffalo. Ask yourself, “Could I individually tick off [subjects] on my fingers?” If so, you’re probably using fewer.

Example: You will have fewer clients if you eliminate every single one that occasionally frustrates you.

Example: There sure are fewer mosquitoes around here since Pa got that zapper.

USE LESS WHEN: You are referring to amounts that can’t be counted or quantified individually, or that don’t have a plural form – money, milk, time, water, patience. I like to think of these as “insubstantial ” words: things that are fluid, that have volume, that don’t have definite parameters.

Example: Fewer clients translate to less money, unfortunately.

Example: There sure was less accidental electrocutin’ around here before Pa got that zapper.

EXCEPTIONS: Oh, you thought it would be cut-and-dry, perhaps?

This is GRAMMAR, friend, a constantly-evolving linguistic hydra with a thousand hissing heads, all of whom look like a frowning 11th grade English teacher. It’s almost never that simple.

Less can also be used with a “quantity considered as a single bulk amount”, as per The New York Times stylebook. This exception is customarily used in units of time, money, or distance: less than 4 miles, less than 5 dollars, less than 6 minutes left.

With those exceptions in mind, ask yourself this usage question: “Can I count it?” In your case, you can count individual commas – so fewer is indeed the correct usage.

That doesn’t help with your underwhelming feedback – sorry about that – but at least you can luxuriate in the unutterable pleasure of knowing that you were, uh, right all along.

Cue Bond Villain cackle.

This has been a message from a Freelance Editor.

Have a question for our resident Red Liner and user of many commas, Kate Hamill? Email her at, or leave it in the comments! Want more posts like this? Join Freelancers Union.