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ESL forum > Games, activities and teaching ideas > Teaching Tip: LESS versus FEWER    

Teaching Tip: LESS versus FEWER

United Kingdom

Teaching Tip: LESS versus FEWER
Dear Members,
To help my students with their English, I have lots of Teaching Tips which I give them from time to time. A student suggested that I post them on ESLP, to help other students. You are free to use them, or not, as you wish.
I frequently hear students use phrases similar to: "I have less and less books, because my friends borrow them from me!"
In casual, informal conversation, the phrase, ´less and less books´, is understood by everyone. It has an ancient history of use, and an excellent ´pedigree´.
However, the phrase, ´fewer and fewer books´, began to be used, many years later, simply because it was a particular writer´s personal preference. This modern form is now regarded as the CORRECT construction.
In my world, you are free to make your own choice.
But, I warn you ... the majority of English grammar books insist that the modern rule is CORRECT. Education Authorities expect all students to speak CORRECT English.
In a strict grammar examination, it would be wise to follow these modern rules.
Here are the rules: 
1) ´Fewer´ is an Adjective which modifies a Noun that is PLURAL and COUNTABLE.
The description must be capable of being visualised in numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.
2) ´Less´ is an Adjective which modifies a Noun that is SINGULAR and UNCOUNTABLE.
The description must be capable of being visualised in amounts: litres, tonnes, metres, volts, seconds, etc.

Using this rule, we have:
1) "There are fewer books" ... you CAN say: "1 book, 2 books, 3 books".    ´books´ is PLURAL and COUNTABLE ... ´books´ CAN be counted: 1, 2, 3.
2) "There is less information" ... you CANNOT say: "1 information, 2 informations, 3 informations."    ´information´ is SINGULAR and UNCOUNTABLE ... ´information´ CANNOT be counted: 1, 2, 3.
3) "There are more books". "There is more information".
Here are my Silly Sentences, to help you remember the rules.
1) There are Fewer than Five COUNTY COUNCILLORS.
2) There is Less than a Litre of UNCOUNTABLE UNCONSCIOUSNESS.
3) There are more than Five COUNTY COUNCILLORS. There is more than a Litre of UNCOUNTABLE UNCONSCIOUSNESS. 

I hope that this is of use to you.
Les Douglas

23 May 2017      


Thanks, Les!! Very much appreciated!

23 May 2017     


I use pictures.

 I use pairs like this.
I have more / fewer cakes than you.
I have more / less custard (on my cakes) than you.
Mario has more / fewer oranges than Daisy.
Daisy has more / less Orange juice than Mario.
I do no use terms like ´countable noun ´ if I can avoid it.
Rather I just show that ´a cake ´ has a clear shape and can be counted / custard does not have a clear shape or form and cannot be counted.
It was interesting to learn that at one time less functioned as fewer does now.
I have read the very interesting book ´Mother Tongue ´ by Bill Bryson a few times.
In the book he talks about many such things as you mentioned here.

(Browser spell Checker set to an unkown language. Sorry if this post gets garbled.) 

23 May 2017     


Thank you for the "Silly Sentences" and  the explanations.  I found them very useful.

24 May 2017     

United Kingdom

Dear Matthew,
Thank you for your contribution.
I also do not frequently use terms like ´countable ´ and ´uncountable ´ in my teaching.
But my students ask about them. Their grammar books refer to them. Their English exams have question about them. Finally, their Education Authorities include them in the Curriculum, and they are taught them in their English Lessons in their home schools.
So, the phrases are a little difficult to avoid, especially with educated adults.
Regarding your definitions of ´custard and ´cakes ´: they are visually very good.
But, I suggest that ´an explosion ´ does not have a clear shape or form, but it CAN be counted ... "1 explosion, 2 explosions, 3 explosions".
On the other hand, ´music ´ does have clear shape and form. But it CANNOT be counted ... "1 music, 2 musics, 3 musics". If it didn ´t have shape and form, as any musician will tell you, it would be described as ´noise ´.
But, I like your cakes and custard metaphor.
Les Douglas

25 May 2017