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There is an appropriate time to use the word few and an appropriate time to use the word less, but they are not interchangeable! It seems that everyone I talk to has the perversion of misusing these words. They have the spirit of the words under control, but they don't appear to realize that knowing the definition of the word is not enough to enable them to correctly apply them.

Examples of misuse:
  • There are less toes on my foot than before.
  • Canada has fewer area than Mexico and Russia combined.

  • The word less refers to the amount of something that you can't count, whereas the word fewer refers to the number of something that you can't count. Saying, "I have fewer toes than you!" makes sense because the word fewer is referring to the fact that the number of toes that I have is smaller than yours. It does not, then make sense to use the word fewer to modify words like milk, or soda because, although they can become plural, they aren't countable. It would just be wrong to say, "I have fewer soda than you!"

    So the general rule that gets to almost all cases of few vs. less use is this:

    If the noun you want to modify is plural and ends in the letter s, use the word few. If plural with no s, use less.

    Many people misuse "less", when "fewer" would be the correct word to describe a reduced or lower quantity. Here is the rule used in modern English (although see Gritchka's writeup in "fewer"):

    Commonly misused in supermarket express checkout queues: "10 items or less".

    The opposite of 'fewer' is 'more', and the opposite of 'less' is also 'more'. This is part of the reason behind the confusion between the two words.

    One way to test which word is appropriate is that something you can have 'fewer' of is something you can have 'a few' of (something quantum), something you can have 'less' of is something you can have 'a little' of (something continuous). For example, 'a little oranges' just sounds wrong - you say, 'a few oranges', so the opposite of 'more oranges' is 'fewer oranges'. Likewise, 'a few orange juice' is clearly wrong, it's 'a little orange juice', so the opposite of 'more orange juice' is 'less orange juice'.

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