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These two seem very similar. What are the major differences between the two? For example, in the following sentence,

Substitute the lesser punishment for the greater one.

Can one use "less" instead of "lesser" here?

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closed as general reference by RegDwigнt Sep 27 '12 at 12:47

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
The planted hectare was lesser in the previous year, than at present. –  user26622 Sep 27 '12 at 12:24
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Lesser is an adjective. Less is an adverb. Everything else follows. –  RegDwigнt Sep 27 '12 at 12:49
    
Given RegDwight's comment, to simplify things for the reader, the answer is 'no'. Anyway, 'lesser' is a bit formal, 'the lighter punishment' is the more likely way to say it. –  Mitch Sep 27 '12 at 12:56

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Less refers to quantity, lesser refers to quality.

Your sentence could be rephrased as "substitute less punishment for more punishment." Here we are saying that the amount of punishment is smaller. But if you say "substitute the lesser punishment" you are saying the type of punishment is not as severe.

  • Forty lashes is less punishment than 100 lashes.
  • Pelted with rotten tomatoes is a lesser punishment than pelted with rocks.
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I think you meant "Being pelted with rotten tomatoes..." –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '12 at 12:59

Consider:

  • less of the two - a smaller amount of both things under consideration: "I would prefer to see less of the two in the future."
  • lesser of the two - the thing that is smaller in quantity, amount, stature, etc. than the other: "I'll take the lesser of the two and you can have the other one."

One way to look at it, then, is that less refers to an amount of something that need not be compared to anything else, whereas lesser refers to the thing itself in comparison to something else (which need not be explicitly named).

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Even if you don't mention it explicitly, 'less' does compare to something (unless you're in advertising). –  Sam May 10 '11 at 22:47

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