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From a CNBC article today (Amid inflation and market volatility, just 12% of adults — and 29% of millionaires — feel ‘wealthy’):

Less than one-quarter, or 23%, of more than 2,000 adults polled earlier this fall said they felt “very comfortable” about their finances. Fewer — just 12% — consider themselves wealthy, the report said.

Even with their high net worth, less than half of all millionaires, or 44%, felt “very comfortable” about their finances and fewer than one-third, or 29%, felt wealthy, the report also found.

It feels like the reporter is just mixing words up for impact, using "fewer" to imply an even smaller amount, is there a grammatical rule that allows this, or should it always be "fewer than half" when talking about countables like people?

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    It is really, really arguable whether there is, in fact, any difference at all. Although most native speakers—or at least those of us with a tendency towards linguistic pedantry—will insist there is one, and indeed in certain specific cases one use is clearly preferred over the other, the evidence for a general rule about countable vs non-countable nouns is not very strong. I urge you to read this excellent answer over at ELU: "Less" vs. "fewer".
    – terdon
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 22:14

5 Answers 5

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You are missing a small but important distinction between the things these two words are referring to.

Less than one-quarter, or 23%, of more than 2,000 adults polled earlier this fall said they felt “very comfortable” about their finances.

In this sentence, "Less than one-quarter" is referring to a numerical fraction, a statistic derived from the adults being talked about.

Fewer — just 12% — consider themselves wealthy, the report said.

In this sentence, "Fewer" is referring directly to the adults in question. The percentage given is in an incidental clause separate from the main grammatical structure of the sentence.

In the first sentence, "less" is valid for talking about the fraction or percentage, but "fewer" would also be valid as referring to the countable quantity of adults that the fraction or percentage is calculated from.

In the second sentence, considering the grammar without the dash-separated incidental clause, I think "less" might be technically valid, but would be awkward due to the length of the implied reference target. Inserting the reference to make it no longer implied would produce a sentence like this:

Less than 23% of adults consider themselves wealthy, the report said.

"Fewer" is more clearly valid and feels more natural to me. Only a single word would have to be inserted to remove the implied reference while maintaining grammatical validity:

Fewer adults consider themselves wealthy, the report said.

In the second paragraph quoted in the question, both references are in context similar to the first sentence. As noted for that, "less" is valid as a reference to the numerical fraction, and "fewer" is also valid as a reference to the countable quantity the fraction is calculated from. Which word to use in each place is just a stylistic choice.

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    I don't entirely disagree with this answer, except that 'fewer', like 'less' is comparative. The second stat is being compared to the first. There is nothing else it can be compared to. And it just isn't idiomatic to use 'fewer' when comparing percentages. In this particular example they claim to have polled precisely 2000 people, but any data analyst will tell you that most cohorts of data are not so round. A percentage, rounded for presentation, could represent a decimal, and you couldn't say that, for example, 1.5 people was 'fewer' than 2 people.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 10:53
  • @Astralbee I was inclined to think as you did before reading this answer, but in fact the "just 12%" is a parenthetical phrase (set off by dashes) and so the sentence must be grammatical even if that phrase is removed. And I would never write, "Less consider themselves wealthy."
    – David K
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 5:52
  • @DavidK You're correct that the qualifying statement is parenthetical, but even with that removed you have a comparison being drawn to a non-numerical value, the previously mentioned 23%. We cannot be completely certain of the number of people in the first statement (see my answer) so to compare to it you must have the same kind of value and use the same terms. You also still have the grammatical inconsistency of using both fewer and less to refer to the same type of values from the same dataset.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 9:18
  • @Astralbee Those are also good points On further consideration the problem is deeper than just the choice of one word. The entire passage needs to be rewritten for clarity. Chalk it up to writing on a tight deadline.
    – David K
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 15:22
  • This answer spends all but the last paragraph focused on the first part of the quotation. The question seems to me to be primarily about the second part, where “less than half” and “fewer than one-third” both refer to “of all millionaires” Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 17:58
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So many native English speakers ignore the difference between 'fewer' and 'less' that it is not considered to be an error in everyday speech. However, even those who insist on 'fewer' for countable items and 'less' for non-countable things usually agree that you use 'less' for percentages and fractions irrespective of what they represent because they are not counts. It is most likely that the percentages in your example were rounded from decimals. If the cohort polled were not precisely 2000 persons, the percentages quoted may produce decimals (eg 1.5 people) so you can see why percentages are not people.

The other important thing to note about both words is that they are comparative, so every time you use either word it has to be in comparison to something else. In your example, the writer first says "less than a quarter". They go on to specify that this is 23%; Clearly, the only reason to make this comparison was for emphasis; to help the reader see that 23% is a relatively small proportion. But when they go on to make their next statement with 'fewer', the only possible comparison is to what went before - the 23%.

This really is a very inconsistent use of language. Numbers and percentages should always be compared like-for-like, and speaking about them in two different terms when making a comparison is something a good editor would correct a writer on. Newspapers, universities etc may have style guides that insist on the distinction, but usually, consistency throughout your writing is what is most important, and your example shows an inconsistency by using both in the same paragraph.

I agree it is likely the writer of your example mistakenly thought it would help indicate that the second percentage is lower than the first, but all they have done is be inconsistent with their language. They should perhaps have instead said "less", and then "even less".

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This is just sloppy writing/editing. Both sentences are a very similar context, and would be fine with either less or fewer. Using less for one and fewer for the other isn’t linguistically wrong, but it’s not very good style (at least to my ear).

The general rule is:

  • Continuous quantities can only be compared with less: “I drink less coffee than Alice.” Fewer would be unquestionably wrong in such contexts.

  • Discrete quantities can be compared with either less or fewer: both “I ate less sandwiches than Bob” and “I ate fewer sandwiches than Bob” are OK. Fewer is more traditional for such contexts, and some people feel that makes less wrong, so fewer is usually preferred in formal writing — but less is without question well-established in in spoken and informally-written English today, and isn’t rare in formal writing.

  • Contexts like yours, describing a continuous fraction of a large discrete population, can use either less or fewer. Some people will argue that either one is the only correct option — “It’s a continuous fraction/percentage, so it has to be less” vs “They’re individual people, so it has to be fewer” — but the fact that both these readings are clearly reasonable is exactly what makes both less and fewer seem natural and idiomatic for most native speakers in this context (even for people who maintain the less/fewer distinction in unambiguously discrete examples).

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    I'll add that sometimes we can choose whether to describe a quantity as countable or uncountable. For instance, "I drink fewer coffees than Alice" can make sense, especially in a situation where Alice and I get our coffee from a machine that delivers standardized coffee cups; but it has a slightly different meaning than "I drink less coffee than Alice".
    – Stef
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 9:54
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In my opinion, "fewer," as written, is the better choice here, at least in the first paragraph.

I read "Fewer - just 12% - consider themselves wealthy" as a shortened form of "Fewer [adults] - just 12% - consider themselves wealthy."

If the author had, instead, used the word "less," it would call to mind "Less [adults] - just 12% - consider themselves wealthy." Many (including me) find the practice of placing "less" before a plural countable noun to be grammatically unsettling, despite its growing and dyspepsia-inducing popularity.

However, this doesn't at all justify the author's choice in the second paragraph. I'd prefer "Less than one-third" to "Fewer than one-third" in any event, given the direct comparison with the fractional quantity.

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  • Yes, but fewer adults than what? The only figure available for comparison is another percentage.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 10:55
  • @Astralbee Fewer adults than the ones that feel comfortable with their finances.
    – cruthers
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 14:40
  • and how many of those are there, exactly? Numerically speaking?
    – Astralbee
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 18:01
  • Doesn't matter. "Fewer adults feel wealthy than comfortable." Who cares how many? "Fewer" works.
    – cruthers
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 21:39
  • The modern distinction between fewer and less doesn't line up with their historical usage. It was a rule wholly invented in the 1700s. Given the growing blurring of the two I think it is perfectly acceptable to abandon the rule entirely and let them return naturally to their earlier meanings.
    – Callum
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 17:41
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I believe it’s as simple as less than for a singular word and fewer for plural. e.g. less than half the population (population being singular) and fewer than half of the people (people being plural)

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    Your belief is wrong. It is less for a continuous variable and fewer for a diiscrete variable.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 12:33
  • Thank you Chenmunka. Please give me an example of a continuous variable that is not a singular noun and one for a discrete variable that is not a plural noun. Commented May 22, 2023 at 21:39

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