- fewer, lessAs a general guide, fewer is used with plural nouns (fewer books, fewer people) and indicates number, whereas less is used with singular nouns and indicates amount (less money / less happiness). However, there is an extensive no man's land between these two positions. To begin with, less can be used idiomatically with than followed by plural nouns when these denote something closer to an amount than a numerical quantity, as with distances, periods of time, ages, and sums of money: less than 5 miles to go / less than six weeks / children less than three years old / less than £100. Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read 5 items or less (which refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read 5 items or fewer (which emphasizes individuality, surely not the intention). Examiners often invite candidates to write a summary of a passage of prose in fifty words or less. In some borderline cases it is more idiomatic to use less when fewer would put an unwelcome emphasis on the numerical quantity rather than the cumulative effect of the total:…
• unashamedly rejoiced in having had in his house at one time no less than five Nobel Prize Winners —Margaret Drabble, 1987.But less should be avoided when it comes before an otherwise unqualified plural noun:
• ☒ I shall care about less things —Penelope Fitzgerald, 1980
• ☒There is not enough money being spent on rehabilitation and, if we spend more, we could save a lot of money with less people reoffending —Bury Free Press, 2007.See also less 3.
Modern English usage. 2014.