less

less
1. pronoun

the fare is less than $1

Syn:
a smaller amount than, not so/as much as, under, below
Ant:
more
2. adjective

there was less noise now

Syn:
not so much, smaller, slighter, shorter, reduced; fewer
3. adverb

we must use the car less

Syn:
to a lesser degree, to a smaller extent, not so/as much
4. preposition

figure the list price less 10 percent

Syn:
minus, subtracting, excepting, without
Ant:
plus
••
less, fewer
Strictly, less applies to singular nouns (less tonic water, please) or units of measure (less than six ounces of epoxy). Fewer applies to plural nouns (fewer guests arrived than expected) or numbers of things (we have three fewer members this year). The exception in using fewer occurs when count nouns essentially function as mass nouns because the units are so very numerous or they aren't considered discrete items (the idea of individual units becomes meaningless). Hence less is used correctly with time and money: one isn't, ordinarily, talking about the number of years or the number of dollars but rather the amount of time or the amount of money — e.g.:
• "On that mantra, Larry Clark has built a $45 million-a-year company in less than five years." (Arizona Business Gazette; Nov. 30, 1995.)
• "Okay, how about $50 a month for such an apartment — less than two dollars a day?" (Village Voice; Apr. 29, 1997.)
Fewer, in fact, is incorrect when intended to refer to a period of time — e.g.: "You can run from sea level to the sky and back to earth in as fast as 45 minutes (so far), but even today, going round-trip in fewer [read less] than 60 minutes carries a special cachet." (Anchorage Daily News; June 29, 1997.) But if the units of time are thought of as wholes, and not by fractions, then fewer is called for (fewer days abroad | fewer weeks spent apart). Hence we say less documentation but fewer documents; less whispering but fewer remarks; less of a burden but fewer burdens; less fattening but fewer calories.
Fastidious writers and editors preserve the old distinction. But the loose usage crops up often — e.g.: "You will have less [read fewer] people to call and haunt about paying for their outfits and buying their accessories." (Boston Herald [magazine]; Oct. 19, 1997.) The linguistic hegemony by which less has encroached on fewer's territory is probably now irreversible. What has clinched this development is something as mundane as the express checkout lines in supermarkets. They’re typically bedecked with signs cautioning, "15 items or less." These signs are all but ubiquitous in the United States. But the occasional more literate supermarket owner uses a different sign: "15 or fewer items."
Finally, even with the strict usage, it's sometimes a close call whether a thing is a mass noun or a count noun, and hence whether less or fewer is proper. Take, for example, a percentage: should it be "less than 10% of the homeowners were there" or "fewer than 10% of the homeowners were there"? One could argue that a percentage is something counted (i.e., 10 out of 100), and thus requires fewer. One could also argue that a percentage is a collective mass noun (akin, e.g., to money), and thus requires less. The latter is the better argument because most percentages aren't whole numbers anyway. And even if it were a toss-up between the two theories, it's sound to choose less, which is less formal in tone than fewer.
If, in strict usage, less applies to singular nouns and fewer to plural nouns, the choice is clear: "one less golfer on the course," not "one fewer golfer." This is tricky only because less is being applied to a singular count noun, whereas it usually applies to a mass noun. Lyricist Hal David got it right in "One Less Bell to Answer" (1970). Nearly a quarter of the time, however, writers use one fewer, an awkward and unidiomatic phrase. One can't help thinking that this is a kind of hypercorrection induced by underanalysis of the less-vs.-fewer question.
Lesser, like less, refers to quantity, but is confined to use as an adjective before a singular noun and following an article (the lesser crime) or alone before a plural noun (lesser athletes), thus performing a function no longer idiomatically possible with less. Dating from the thirteenth century, this formal usage allows lesser to act as an antonym of greater. — BG

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