Fewer or Less and Farther or Further

The distinction between the words fewer and less can seem almost silly. However, the train of English grammar over the centuries has kept on a specific course. And this is what we have for now:

  • The word fewer (a plural noun) is used when you can count the number of items in question (no matter how high or microscopic the number is).
  • The word less (a single noun) is used when you cannot make an accurate count because what’s being measured is an abstraction.

That leaves us with correct usage that looks something like this:

  • There are fewer than five chips left for the salsa.
  • You have less patience than you did before I scratched your paint.

Is there an exception to this? You bet. When less is followed by than, it can function exactly like fewer.

  • No less than 90,000 fans watched their team lose in the last minute.

As a bonus, farther and further are becoming more and more segregated (in much the same way as fewer and less). The interesting aspect here is that this is a newer development.

  • Prefer farther when you can actually measure spatial or temporal distance. (In other words, further is acceptable, but farther is considered better.)
  • Use further when there’s no physical distance.
  • With metaphorical distances, you have the option of either term depending on preference.

Here’s what I mean:

  • The ball sailed farther to the left than he would have liked. [measurable distance]
  • He worked on further refining his kicking game. [no distance to actually measure]
  • Nothing could be further/farther from the truth. [pick wisely—based on what the editor likes]

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