Business writing

Grammar with Em: Is it 25 words or ‘less’? Or fewer’?

- December 9, 2015 3 MIN READ

Fewer or less. It’s one of those bugbears that instantly increases the temperatures, blood pressure and voice volumes of grammatical pedants the world over.

“I HATE THOSE SIGNS AT THE SUPERMARKET. ‘12 ITEMS OR LESS’? IT SHOULD BE FEWER, NOT LESS. FEWER! AAAARGH!”

So today I’m here to tell you about the general ‘rules’ around using the terms ‘less’ and ‘fewer’.

I’m also here to tell you about breaking them.

If you’re a grammatical pedant who wants to avoid increases in your temperature, blood pressure and voice volume, click away now.

If not, please join me. Let’s go!

Fewer vs less

The ‘rules’ for this one are straightforward. You use fewer for the things you can count, and less for those you can’t. Fewer drops of water. Less water. Fewer grains of rice. Less rice.

You use fewer for plural nouns, and less for singular. Fewer Freddo Frogs. Less chocolate. Fewer dollars in the bank. Less money.

Straightforward? Yes.

Exceptions? Of course.

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Any ‘rule’ that covers two virtual synonyms will have exceptions and/or differing viewpoints. Let’s address the main one. The one you’ll probably face if you ever want to run a competition that’s a game of skill.

25 words or less competitions

Hosting a competition is a great way to boost interaction on your site and in your social media profiles (as long as you’re playing by the relevant social network’s rules). But what should you call it?

I’m here to put some grammar nerd noses out of joint. I can hear them now (the grammar nerds, not their broken noses): “If you’re hosting a competition where you want people to submit entries of a maximum of 25 words, you should use ‘fewer’. You just should. You can COUNT the words. One, two, three … all the way up to 25. Fewer. Not less.”

But no. You shouldn’t. You should use ‘less’. 25 words or less. (CUE ALL THE OUTRAGE. Your feedback is important to us. Please send hate mail to idontcare@fakeemailaddress.leavebritneyalone.)

Here’s why.

  1. ‘25 words or less’ is understood. It’s clear. It’s unambiguous. Is it ‘less’ correct than ‘25 words or fewer’? Sure, according to some people (and at least we can all agree that it’s not ‘fewer’ correct). But you know exactly what is meant by the phrase. So it’s not wrong.
  2. The ‘correctness’ of ‘25 words or less’ versus ‘25 words or fewer’ is actually an ongoing debate. A long, long time ago (fittingly, around the time American Pie was written), the preference was to use the terms the other way around.
  3. Recent linguistic research has uncovered conditions in which ‘less’ is more commonly used when you’d expect to see ‘fewer’. ‘25 words or less’ meets two of these conditions (the word ‘words’ and the construction ‘<countable noun> or <less/fewer>’).
  4. 25 words or less will garner less criticism than 25 words or fewer. It sounds backwards, and it might be tempting to educate your clients who want to argue, but they don’t want to participate in a grammatical debate. They want to WIN!
  5. Most importantly, ‘25 words or less’ is the most common phrase. It’s what people will type into their search engines when they’re looking for competitions to enter. If you go with ‘25 words or fewer’ because GRAMMATICAL CORRECTNESS HOORAY!, you’ll miss out on traffic. That might make judging the competition a little easier, but I doubt that’s the point of your competition.

To cut a long story short …

… or to use fewer (less?) words, stick with ‘25 words or less’ if you want eyes on your competition.

And good luck!

Have you run a ‘25 words or less’ competition? What did you call it?