We all go to the grocery at some point in the week to gather things we need for modern-day survival. In your basket, you have a few items and can go to the express checkout lane (even though those can go as slow as the regular lanes). You look up to see what the limit is in bolded letters of whatever color: 20 items or less.
You stand there in line scratching your head thinking, Is the word ‘less’ correct?
The answer is NO. But why?
There are rules in English to use certain words when nouns are singular or plural, to an extent. There are exceptions to this rule.
The words less and fewer are adjectives; modifiers of nouns. Fewer is the only one of the two that possess a superlative form: fewer and fewest. Less is used with singular nouns, such as:
- People consume less alcohol.
- He should eat less food.
Notice how the nouns food and alcohol are singular and less is used to modify them.
Fewer is used with plural nouns, such as:
- He should drink fewer glasses of milk.
- People now order fewer bottles of wine.
Notice the plural forms of glasses and bottles, and fewer is used to modify them.
Now, here is the exceptions. The modifier less is used for things that cannot be counted easily. For example, I would not say, I should eat less cookie. A good rule to remember when these exceptions pop up is to ask yourself:
Can I measure the noun I’m wanting to use?
If you can measure the nouns, then you can use the fewer modifier. Here are some examples when fewer is grammatically correct than less.
- I need to drink fewer ounces of soda.
- He should take fewer pills.
- Let’s purchase fewer tons of asphalt.
Notice how the three examples can be measure by a ton, in ounces, or counting the pills. If your noun cannot be counted in measurements, then less is your modifier.
Back to the beginning at the grocery store, standing in the express check out lane as you ponder about the store’s light up sign, 20 items or less. Then you chuckle at yourself because you’re an copyeditor and know the sign is completely wrong. The sign should display, 20 items or fewer. Because we can count fewer items; we cannot count less as it is a chunk of nouns that cannot be counted.