# Smaller vs. less vs. lesser

I am confused as to some of the vocabulary that can be used to compare numbers and quantities, and would very much appreciate some clarification.

• I suppose it is safe to say that 1 is smaller than 2.
• Can I also say that 1 is less than 2, and if so, which form is preferable?
• It seems that saying that 1 is lesser than 2 is uncommon - but is it incorrect?
• Finally, -2 is clearly less than -1, but is it true that -2 is smaller than -1?
(If I have 2\$ of debt, then I would say that I have less money than if I had 1\$ of debt, but I would also say that my debt was larger, not smaller).
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As a general rule, "smaller" is used for size, whereas "lesser" is used for quantity. –  Shaona Bose Jul 27 '13 at 14:04
Related (but probably not a dup) “Lower number” vs. “smaller number” –  FumbleFingers Jul 27 '13 at 20:43

The < symbol is known as less than so less than will probably be better in mathematical contexts. In other contexts smaller than may also be acceptable: My salary is smaller than my wife's.

Lesser can only be used attributively. So you can say: I earn a lesser salary than my wife, but not: My salary is lesser than my wife's.

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Small

not big; less in size or amount than is average

small lunches

He’s small for his age

Those jackets come in small, medium, and large sizes

It does not require an explicit comparison to any other item for its meaning, although such comparison may be understood or implied.

I ordered a small cup of coffee. (I did not order a large cup.)

Smaller

Smaller is the relative adjective (or sometimes adverb or noun) of small, indicating that referenced term it has more of the characteristic of smallness

I ordered the smaller of the two cup sizes offered.

When using small, no other size needs to be explicitly considered. When using smaller, there must be a point of comparison, and generally only two choices. If there were more than two, referring to the item having the least of the characteristic, you would use smallest.

Less

Less is a determiner or pronoun that means

a smaller amount of; not as much:

[as determiner]: the less time spent there, the better

[as pronoun]: storage is less of a problem than it used to be

they returned in less than an hour

Less requires an explicit comparison. Even When you say I want less, you are asking for an amount that is not as large as the specific one being offered.

Note that less is generally used only with uncountable things. I want less sugar in my coffee. When referring to countable things (things with discrete indivisible units), fewer is used. I want fewer people at my dinner party.

Lesser

Lesser means

Smaller in amount, value, or importance, especially in a comparison between two things: chose the lesser evil.

Of a smaller size than other, similar forms: the lesser anteater.

Lesser refers to something discrete and is a specific comparison between two things. Less is also comparative, but does not refer to an explicit amount.

I want less sugar. [How much? Not clear.]

I want the soda with the lesser amount of sugar. [How much? The exact amount in the diet drink.]

The Questions

1 is smaller than 2

1 is less than 2

1 is the lesser number when compared to 2

Which you use depends totally on the context. Whether a higher integer means more depends on what you mean when you say more - as you suggest more debt means less cash.

This is even more complex when considering negative numbers. Which is greater, -1 or -2. If you are discussing temperature -2 is colder (more cold) that -1.

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Hope this table clarifies the usage. Note that in these examples, words smaller and greater perform two functions whereas less and lesser perform one function each. It is incorrect to say 3 is lesser than 5.

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Small/large refer to size. One number is not smaller than another unless you are talking about font size.

2 is less than 1.

You would use "lesser" in cases where "greater" would be appropriate in the reverse. 5 is greater than 4, so 4 is lesser than 5. But it would also be appropriate to say 4 is less than 5.

Regarding debt, a debt of \$2 is greater than a debt of \$1. The value is a number, so use greater/less.

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I like the thrust of this answer, though I might quibble with its premise (language is not so precise as you paint it). Nevertheless, we encourage answerers here to support their arguments with references to external authorities (dictionary, usage guides, the opinions of experts, what-have-you). –  Dan Bron Jul 1 at 17:57