The following (cited at ELU) from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language still confuses me. I've recast the formatting for readability and discuss only [i] to [iii]; I think I understand the other examples.

The relation between less and fewer is fairly complex. In non-count singulars only less is possible:
Kim has less fewer money than Pat. In plural NPs we have: [17]
i. She left less than ten minutes ago.
ii. Less/Fewer than thirty of the students had voted.
iii. He made no less/fewer than fifteen mistakes.

Both [i] and [ii] have than + numeral. In [i] 'ten minutes' expresses an amount of time rather than a number of individuated units, and in such cases fewer is virtually impossible—just as few would be in a comparison of equality: She left as little few as ten minutes ago.* Similarly with We paid less than thirty dollars for it; She’s less than forty years old; We were going at less than ten miles an hour.

1. Why are fewer and few wrong? 'ten minutes' DOES express a number of individuated units, because it expresses an increment of ten minutes, rather than minutes themselves. You can certainly count intervals of 10 minutes, so fewer should be used?

2. Why is few impossible in a comparison of equality? The above doesn't appear to explain.

In [ii] we are concerned with countable individuals and little cannot be used in a comparison of equality (as little as thirty of the students); nevertheless, for inequality less is more common than fewer in this construction. The same applies with percentages: Less/Fewer than 30% of the students had voted.

Construction [iii] has the comparative form following no: though the interpretation is count plural, less is here again more common than fewer.

3. The above implies that only few is truly right for [ii] and fewer for [iii],
so why's less 'more common' in both cases?

  • Few does not specify quantity but cardinality. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 23 '15 at 22:54

Less than ten minutes

In this example, time is being treated as a fluid quantity, like water. "I have less water" - "I have less time."

The fact that we measure it using individual units (minutes) doesn't matter.

"I have ten litres of water". "I have twenty litres of water." "I have less water than you do! I have less than twenty litres of water."

"I did it in ten minutes." "I did it in twenty minutes." "I took less time than you did! I took less than twenty minutes to do it."

"Less" when it should be "fewer"

The issue here is that in almost every case where "fewer than" is correct, "less than" is almost correct. If you use "less than" when you were supposed to use "fewer than", you'll still be understood 99% of the time.

Because of this almost-correctness of "less than", some people use less in most/all cases. They don't bother keeping track of when to use which one - they just use "less than" everywhere.

It's a colloquialism. If you do it in front of a teacher, the teacher will probably correct you. But it is common, even among native speakers.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.