Count or measure

rogersgeorge on August 4th, 2009

Fewer—use this word with things you can count, like nuts. “I have fewer peanuts than you do.” The opposite is “many” and you use these words with numbers.

Less—Use this with things you measure (called mass nouns). “I have less peanut butter than you do.” The opposite is “much” and you use the words with amounts.

I mentioned this distinction obliquely under one of the photos I had taken during my visit to the Kennedy Space Center for the shuttle launch. The Center has a lot of signage describing tangible benefits of the space program (called spinoffs), and I noticed one of the signs missed a good chance to get this distinction right. Click the link—it’ll open in a new window so you won’t lose your place here. The first use of “amount” in the sign is correct. You measure the amount of growth. But farther down, the sign mentions the number of cells, so “amount” is wrong. They should have written “…grown in large numbers.” Some might argue that cells are so small, you don’t actually count them, but I say they’re mentioned as discrete objects. Harrumpf.

By the way, we have an exception—time. Even though we count minutes and hours, we measure time, so we can say “I took less time, about ten minutes less.”

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