1. There were no less (or no fewer) than fifty persons in the dining hall.
  2. In 25 words or fewer/less, please summarize what took place.
  3. fewer / less calories?
  4. The hamburgers should contain no less/fewer than 50% meat.
  5. Less/fewer than five percent of the population will be affected.

We use "fewer" for countable noun and "less" for both countable and uncountable noun.
My confusion is that can fewer and less are interchangeable in all these sentences (or in that kind of sentences)? I also read that both "fewer" and "less" are acceptable for countable noun. But if we follow strict grammar rule what should be answer for use of "fewer" and "less"?

Note: Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary say this is traditionally considered bad English to use "less" for countable noun.

  • Related: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fewer_vs._less. (Don't overlook the "disputed" note and the talk page.) Sep 18, 2015 at 11:11
  • 2
    It is worth noting the phrase "traditionally considered bad English" means "don't worry about it in normal conversation". For an English exam, you might get marked down for using "less" when you should user "fewer". In everyday English, many people (and most young people) do not use the word "fewer" at all.
    – AndyT
    Sep 18, 2015 at 14:26

1 Answer 1



Less head-scratching, fewer mistakes

I could not find anything simpler than this. Straight from the OxfordDictionaries.com

Use 'fewer' if you’re referring to people or things in the plural (e.g. houses, newspapers, dogs, students, children). For example:

People these days are buying fewer newspapers.
Fewer students are opting to study science-related subjects.
Fewer than thirty children each year develop the disease.

Use 'less' when you’re referring to something that can’t be counted or doesn’t have a plural (e.g. money, air, time, music, rain). For example:

It’s a better job but they pay you less money.
People want to spend less time in traffic jams.
Ironically, when I’m on tour, I listen to less music.

'Less' is also used with numbers when they are on their own and with expressions of measurement or time, e.g.:

His weight fell from 18 stone to less than 12.
Their marriage lasted less than two years.
Heath Square is less than four miles away from Dublin city centre.

So, the sentences in concern:

  1. There were no less than 50 people in the dining hall

  2. In 25 words or less, please summarize what took place

  3. Fewer calories (but 'less calories' has also ingrained in the language these days. Maybe, it's used where the number of calories is not specified. But still, don't consider this as a rule)

  4. The hamburgers should contain no/not less than 50% meat.

  5. Less than 5% of the population will be affected.

Further reading recommended here.

Worth noting that 'no fewer than' is an idiom which means the number you are describing is surprisingly large. Beware of using it that way!

  • 2
    Great explanation, Sir! I love your style of giving the most suitable examples wherever and whenever is required!
    – Rucheer M
    Sep 18, 2015 at 10:37
  • 1
    That third rule explains why we usually hear "25 words or less", even though words is a plural, countable noun. So, if I was writing a paper with my co-worker, I might say: "The guidelines say 25 words or less, so our title needs fewer words."
    – J.R.
    Sep 18, 2015 at 11:28
  • 5
    Aside from the "rules", the only one of the OP's sentences that sounds horribly wrong in British English is "... no fewer than 50% meat". Also, "no less than" is the same idiom as "no fewer than". If you mean "the burger should contain between 50% and 100% meat", the sentence should be "... not less than 50% meat."
    – alephzero
    Sep 18, 2015 at 16:54
  • 2
    I think people tend to use fewer calories in published writing. In COCA, I find 288 results for fewer calories and only 21 results for less calories. This supports your judgment that fewer calories is the better choice. But in the Fisher and Switchboard corpora of spoken English, consisting of transcriptions of telephone calls, I find 18 results for less calories and only 1 result for fewer calories. In other words, the way people normally speak in American English tends to be quite different from their published writing! Less calories is usual in informal speech.
    – user230
    Sep 21, 2015 at 7:44
  • 1
    @Maulik Do you mean that, according to the strict usage, "There were no less than 50 people in the dining hall" is correct? Sep 21, 2015 at 8:49

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