Years ago, my friend Jessica told me how less and fewer are often, and incorrectly, used interchangeably. Whether I thank her or curse her for his enlightenment depends on the day. I value knowledge, but people make this mistake so often that once you know the rule governing their use, the incorrect usage will drive you to distraction. It seems to happen all over the web, where anyone with Internet access can style themselves a writer.
Just this morning, I was reading Michael Lavorgna’s article, “The Ayre QX-5 Twenty: The Digital Hub” on Stereophile. The article opens with this sentence:
Let’s say you want less boxes in your hi-fi but you don’t want to give up the stuff you need and the stuff you like.
Less boxes? No, it’s fewer boxes. I’m guessing they don’t have an editor over there.
The rule is straightforward. If you can count the objects in question, it’s fewer. If not, it’s less. You can certainly count the number of components in your hi-fi so it’s fewer boxes.
With that in mind, it’s fewer boxes, less sand, fewer people, less water, and fewer troubles, for example.
While it is less sand and less water, it would be fewer grains of sand and fewer litres of water. You can’t count sand or water, but you can count units of sand and water, therefore less becomes fewer when you attach units.
So remember, if you can count the objects in question, it’s fewer. If not, it’s less.