I decided to take some time off from my unending war against misplaced apostrophes to address an issue I’ve seen cropping up all over the place these days: the misuse of the words “fewer” and “less”.
In a nutshell, you should use “fewer” when you can easily count something, but “less” when whatever it is that you’re talking about cannot be easily measured.
Here’s an easy way to remember the difference: “I have less beer in my glass than you, but I’ve had fewer beers than you”. You use “less beer” because it’s not easy to tell exactly how much beer is in each glass; on the other hand, it’s easy to count how many empty beer bottles there are, so you’d use “fewer” in this case.
Here’s another example: “as the economy picks up, there will be fewer layoffs, resulting in less stress in the workplace”. Since it’s easy to count the number of people laid-off from work, you use “fewer”; since it’s impossible to measure the level of stress in the workplace, you use “less”.
By now, you might be thinking about those signs at the grocery store that say “10 items or less”. Yes, they’re wrong. It’s easy for anyone to count to ten, and counting items is sort of expected if you want to use the express lane. So, in a perfect world, those signs should read “10 items or fewer”. But they don’t.