Fewer vs. less: It’s as easy as pie

Hold up both your index fingers.

Go ahead. Do it. Look around and see who’s watching if you must, but then hold up your fingers anyway.

Now make a fist with one hand.

Go ahead. I’ll wait. And I promise you won’t have to hit anyone.

Done? You are now holding up one fewer finger.

Why fewer and not less?

Because we count fingers individually, and choosing between fewer and less means deciding whether something is a whole or an individual part of a larger group. I wouldn’t ask you to hold up less of a finger because that would involve knives and blood and pain as you whittled off part of that poor finger. This is a lesson in usage, not masochism.

You see, we use less with things that reduce a larger whole. A pie is a good example. If I start with an entire apple pie, fresh from the farmers market, and eat a piece of that pie, I will have less pie. If, on the other hand, I cut that pie into eight pieces and eat two of them, I will have fewer pieces (and a bellyache). So less pie (think of a deduction from the whole) but fewer pieces (the units we count).

You couldn’t have fewer pie anymore than you could have less pieces. If you had, say, 10 rhubarb pies and sold five of them, though, you would have five fewer pies.

(An aside: This gets tricky when we deal with money and volume. For instance, we’d say less than $5 million because we don’t think in terms of 5 million individual dollar bills but rather a collective amount. Likewise, we’d say less than 5 inches of rain. Inches are individual, yes, but the total amount is a whole.)

Keep that in mind as you look again at the headline above. Dropouts are people, and we count people individually – unless you’re a cannibal, I suppose. (If you are a cannibal, please stop reading. You have bigger things to worry about than usage. You were probably looking for a Monty Python sketch anyway. So off with you.)

So the headline is wrong. We wanted to say fewer dropouts. That is, unless we intended to promote cannibalism. Personally, I’d rather stick with pie.

Now consider the lead to the story about freshmen enrolled at Haskell University. The story says that for every 10 freshmen who start school, fewer than one ends up leaving campus with a diploma.

Remember that we use fewer with things we count, like people. So if we have fewer than one, we have zero (one minus one). If we have less than one then pity the poor freshman who has been carved up like rhubarb pie.

The only solution in a case like this is to rewrite a flawed lead. We could say that for every 100 freshmen who enroll, only nine receive diplomas. Or we could say that only 9 percent of Haskell students receive diplomas.

Whenever you must decide between fewer and less, think of pie. And think in terms of wholes and individual parts. If you think of something as a whole, use less. With individual parts, use fewer.

Your pie could be peach or lemon cream or apple or whatever else you prefer. I’ll take rhubarb.

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