Less chocolates or fewer chocolates?
Which is grammatically correct?
There are less chocolates in the box than there were yesterday.
There are fewer chocolates in the box than there were yesterday.
I can assure you, grammar aside, that I am the chocolate thief, responsible for the overall reduction in chocolate. But let’s stay focused.
Conundrums like ‘less or fewer’ go right to the heart of what linguists call descriptive versus prescriptive grammar.
Descriptivists would say that the answer doesn’t matter very much because the overall meaning is clear. Less chocolates, fewer chocolates—for someone scraping at the bottom of the box, desperate for their favourite chocolate after dinner, it’s the same thing in the end, isn’t it?
Not for prescriptivists. These sticklers argue that rules are rules. There is a right answer and a wrong answer to our question about chocolates.
To know the answer to the question, ask yourself another, simpler question. Which is grammatically correct?
There is less fog in the valley today.
There is fewer fog in the valley today.
Native English speakers will instantly notice that ‘fewer fog’ just doesn’t sound right. So, the golden pairing is ‘less fog’ for the second question and ‘fewer chocolates’ for the first.
Why is this? Well, you can’t count fog, but you can count chocolates. In grammatical terms, chocolates are a countable noun whereas fog is an uncountable noun. We are less likely to try and count how much fog is accumulating in a valley than we are to count how many chocolates there are left in an assorted box.
And even if we did try to count how much fog there is, we would likely end up with the realisation that we would have to first convert the fog to a measurement of fog. We would have to make fog countable by measuring it. For example, ‘There are fewer micrometres of fog in the valley today.’ But this is a rarity.
So in general, we use ‘fewer’ for something countable and concrete, ‘less’ for something uncountable and more abstract. Remember this the next time a family member blurts out: ‘There are less chocolates in the box than there were yesterday!’
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