GMAT Idiom: Less vs. Fewer

You should follow me on Twitter. While you're at it, take a moment to subscribe to GMAT Hacks via RSS or Email.


Comparisons are extremely important on GMAT Sentence Correction. In English, many of the ways comparisons are structured are with idioms using words such as "more," "less," "fewer," and "than." "Less" and "fewer" are among the most misused words in the English language.

To determine which of the two words is appropriate, use the following rule: "Less" compares non-countable amounts, and "fewer" compares countable amounts.

For instance, say you wanted to compare two baseball teams. If we measured them in number of games won (which can be counted), we could say: "The Royals have had fewer wins this season than have the Red Sox." We could also measure them in terms of success, which can't be counted: "The Royals have had less success this season than have the Red Sox."

Since we can count a number of games won, we use "fewer." But since we can't count success (one doesn't have 30 or 35 success--that doesn't make any sense), we use "less."

The distinction can be even more subtle. My favorite example is that of sand. You can't count sand, but you can count grains of sand. It may be that Beach A has fewer grains of sand than does Beach B, but Beach A has less sand than does Beach B.

If you are unsure whether something is countable, take a moment and identify exactly what is being compared. Then see if it makes sense to attach a number to it. "1,000 lottery tickets" makes sense, but "22 courage" doesn't. If you're comparing amounts of courage, then, use "less."

To give yourself additional practice beyond the occasional Sentence Correction question that tests this idiom, watch for the words "less" and "fewer" in your daily reading. Newspapers and magazines generally have copy editors to ensure that their grammar is correct, but many popular blogs don't have the same standards, and you'll sometimes find the words misused.

One final note. The opposite of both "less" and "fewer" is "more." There's no difference between countable and non-countable comparisons. The Red Sox have more wins than the Royals do, and they have had more success as well.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

Total GMAT Verbal

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Verbal section. Recognize, dissect, and master every question type you'll face on the test. Everything you need, all in one place, including 100+ realistic practice questions.
Click to read more.