When to use ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’

You’ll make fewer mistakes if you learn this lesson.

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More and more, you see and hear instances where less is used when fewer should have been. The most blatant one is on display in just about any supermarket that features a quick-getaway checkout aisle. Signage that wrongly pronounces “10 items or less” is part of our lives. Yes, you could argue that people get the idea regardless, but that’s not the point. I’d like to see an aisle restricted to those who know the difference.

It’s one thing for a supermarket to mix up the two; it’s another for a publication such as The Wall Street Journal, which let this error slip through in a recent story on architecture: “With less than 30 employees in the 15,000-square-foot complex, no one is as crammed in as before.” Maybe not, WSJ, but your copyeditor should’ve replaced less with fewer.

Here are some guidelines for keeping the two straight.

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