Countable and Uncountable Part 1: Fewer vs. Less

Countable & Uncountable Part 1: Fewer vs. Less

Is it “Ten items or less” or “Ten items or fewer”? Not sure? Then keep reading for the answer.

A common issue in English—one that many native speakers have trouble with—is confusing countable and uncountable nouns, as well as their adjectives.

Perhaps the most common instances of this confusion is seen in many stores, where there is an express lane of some kind that has a sign saying “Ten items or less.” The meaning is clear, that you can purchase up to ten items in that checkout line. However, from a grammatical point of view, the sign is wrong; it should read “Ten items or fewer.”

Countable and uncountable words can be confusing at first, but the difference between them is fairly simple: you can count individual countable nouns and you cannot count uncountable ones.

Countable Nouns

A countable noun is anything that can be counted, tallied, or described in a quantitative way. You can have a dozen eggs, three siblings, or a car. In these examples, the exact number of these items are clear. However, it is the nouns themselves that are countable. You do not have to know the exact number, just that the items could be counted. You can only have a certain number of eggs, family members, or vehicles. How many you have is not the issue, but that you can count them each individually. All units of measurement, such as inches, kilometers, liters, or pounds, are always countable. A countable noun can always be made plural, usually (but not always) by adding an “s”—such as an egg becoming eggs.

Uncountable Nouns

An uncountable noun (also called a mass noun) is anything that cannot be counted, quantified, or exactly measured. This category of nouns includes abstract concepts such as love and knowledge, as well as collective nouns such as air and furniture. Many uncountable nouns simply cannot be counted because they are not physical objects, while others represent some kind of group that cannot be as easily classified. However, just because these items are uncountable, does not mean they cannot be described in any way. You may love your family and love music. While you can have more than one love, that love itself cannot be measured objectively. Emotions are common uncountable nouns since anger and sadness cannot be counted or tallied. Uncountable nouns are also not easily made into plurals. You can have knowledge about many different subjects, but you would never say in English that you have knowledges.

Fewer vs. Less

At the start of this tutorial I brought up the common store sign of “Ten items or less.” The reason this is incorrect is that “items” is a countable noun. You can easily tell this because there is a number attached to it (“ten”). Therefore, you need to use fewer.

The use of less vs. fewer can be confusing. It is not very helpful that in English, more is used for both countable and uncountable nouns. However, fewer is always used to modify countable nouns while less is used for uncountable nouns. See the examples below.

You have more books than I do. (I have fewer books than you do.)
I traveled to fewer places than you did this year. (You traveled to more places than I did this year.)
They listen to more music than us. (We listen to less music than they do.)
We have less money than we used to. (We used to have more money.)

“Books” and “places” are countable nouns (note the plural “s”), while “music” and “money” are uncountable (note they are not plural). Both “music” and “money” are collective terms, describing a group. However, the line between countable and uncountable can shift.

Making Uncountable Countable

 You may look at “money” and think, “I can count money.” You can, but not as money. You can count dollars, pounds, euros, yen, and any other kind of currency, but “money” (as a word) is uncountable. There are many countable words that can take the place of uncountable ones. Replacing “money” with “dollars” removes any difficulties of using an uncountable noun.

You may also think, “I can count different types of music.” That is true, but what you are counting is not “music” but “types of music.” With most uncountable nouns, you can treat them as countable nouns if you change them a little bit. For example, take the word “land.”

I own land. 
My neighbor owns less land than I own.

In this case, “land” is a general term meaning a piece of property. The exact amount of land is not known, and in this form is uncountable. You need to use less.

However, look at the next set of examples.

I own a plot of land.
My neighbor owns fewer acres of land than I own.

The meanings of these sentences are the same as the last set of examples. However, adding in “a plot of” and “acres of” provide a way to measure the uncountable “land.” So you can, in a way, make uncountable nouns behave like countable ones. However, note that “land” is still uncountable, but “plot” and “acres” are countable. You can do the same to most uncountable verbs, such as types of music. Types, kinds, colors, and any other way of breaking down or identifying specific parts of an uncountable noun can change the dynamic of your sentence.

This is a large part of why countable and uncountable nouns can be so confusing. Each noun has its own qualities, but putting them together can change how the sentence needs to be constructed. Use a synonym or call out something specific and you may need to tweak how you write your sentence. And even if your sentence is simple, sometimes it can be difficult to keep track of what kind of noun you are using. Just remember to ask yourself: can I count this?

Look for Part 2 of this series coming soon.

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