Number vs. Amount, Less vs. Fewer

Sometimes less is more. Unless…it’s not.

It is one of my personal crusades to help people figure out the difference between less and fewer and between amount and number. While they may sound like synonyms, they each require specific context.

 

What I always lead with when trying to teach someone about the nuances of these words is, “Think about milk.” (My crew has become really tired of hearing that, by the way. They know what’s coming.)

If your milk is in gallons, then you have a certain number of those gallons. If you want to have fewer gallons, you can throw some away.

But if your milk is freely flowing, sloshing around in a pool or a puddle, then you have a certain amount of milk that probably needs to be cleaned up. Once you have mopped it up (or slurped it, I’m not judging you), then you will have less milk just lying around.

This makes sense, right? But how do we know when we should use which word?

Unlike many times you will deal with the English language, you will find there is a simple answer here. Does the plural of whatever you are talking about end in an s? Then you need to use number and fewer. Does an increased quantity of the thing not end in an s? Then you need to use amount and less.

As it happens, this is also the case for much vs. many.

You can have many gallons of milk.

or

You can spill as much milk as you want on the floor.

 

Just remember the milk.

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