# “Less” vs. “Fewer” when referring to a percentage of a countable quantity

Judging by the consensus over at this question, one should use "fewer" over "less" for countable quantities. What about in this situation?

[Less or Fewer] than 10.7% of the people were happy.

Here, a percentage is not countable (because it is a real number of arbitrary precision), whereas the noun "people" is countable. My instinct tells me that "fewer" would be preferred, because the percentage must always correspond to a rational number (which is countable)—unless of course fractions of people can be happy!

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I think your instinct is spot on, but I wouldn't be able to explain why. – Eldroß Dec 16 '10 at 14:45
Just to be contrarian, a) I don't think that "10.7% of the people" is grammatically identical to "107 out of 1000 people", and b) I, for one, would happily use less with both of them. "Less than 107 out of 1000" sounds fine to me, and "Less than 10.7%" even more so. – RegDwigнt Dec 16 '10 at 15:09
That was your conclusion from the "less vs. fewer" question? That is not what the highest voted response says. – Kosmonaut Dec 16 '10 at 15:30
@Kosmonaut: My conclusion from that response is that most people think that the countability differentiation is a grammatical rule. My motivation is to avoid undue criticism inherent in peoples' notions of what is correct, regardless of whether it is grammatically so. – ESultanik Dec 16 '10 at 16:42
The important thing is that the people that think this don't have their beliefs borne out by the facts, so if you use that belief as a basis for an empirical prediction about grammar, you are going to run into confusion and contradiction. – Kosmonaut Dec 16 '10 at 18:06

*Disclaimer: this answer is based on a grammatical standard, which has been shown to be a "myth" in a response to a related question. I posted my answer here before reading the previous discussion on this whole issue of "less" versus "fewer". I would like to make it clear that my views are not based on some pretentious notions of superior knowledge of grammar. This is simply a standard I have always followed based on my background in English. I leave it to the reader to decide what they want to stick to. Thanks.

Indeed, one should use "fewer" for countable quantities. In fact, the usage of "less" for such quantities is grammatically incorrect. Also, I agree that a percentage is really a fraction. As such, it is apparently not a countable quantity in the grammatical sense. But, there's a catch! The word "percent" means "one part out of every hundred". Thus, if the percentage turns out to be countable, then one gets a countable quantity. When referring to a group of people, this is usually the case. Therefore, in your example sentence, the absolutely correct choice would be "fewer":

Fewer than 10.7% of the people were happy.

As the subject of the sentence "fewer than 10.7%" is certainly a countable quantity.

Now, for a counter example using cake! A fraction of a cake is not countable, no matter how you look at it. Thus, this example is correct:

Less than 10.7% of the cake was eaten.

(although 10.7% is a very arbitrary fraction to use for cake!)

In general, the rule* for percentages would be:

• Use "less" with percentages of uncountable nouns

• Use "fewer" with percentages of countable nouns

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“The usage of "less" for such quantities is grammatically incorrect” is a myth, as I explained in my previous answer on the topic. As I noted in a comment there, the supposed rule is “based neither on sound historical argument nor on modern common usage, but simply on prescriptive persnicketiness”. – nohat Dec 16 '10 at 22:19
@nohat: I just read your answer. While that is some interesting history and maybe only one man came up with the rule, I guess it has stuck. This is one of those issues on which scholars will continue to debate, as you said. The Oxford American Dictionaries assert that "In standard English, less should be used only with uncountable things [examples]. With countable things, it is incorrect to use less: thus less people and less words should be corrected to fewer people and fewer words." Regardless of the origin of this so-called myth, I would imagine most still adhere to this standard. – Jimi Oke Dec 16 '10 at 22:29
it’s only stuck in the minds of usage critics. The rest of world happily uses less in all kinds of countable situations, in writing both formal and informal, and including in the situation presented in this question. Any quick search on e.g. the Corpus of Contemporary American English will show copious examples of less being used in the allegedly incorrect way in all kinds of edited writing. Your guess that most adhere to this standard is in fact not borne out by the evidence. – nohat Dec 16 '10 at 22:38
@nohat: I guess I unfortunately picked up that "prescriptive persnicketiness" from my rather strict but excellent English teachers. I don't think I'll be leaving the minority (although, that's still debatable) camp anytime soon, but I appreciate the enlightenment your answer brought. – Jimi Oke Dec 16 '10 at 23:33
"A fraction of a cake is not countable, no matter how you look at it." I can look at the cake as a collection of atoms. Which can be counted. In fact, where do we get the 10.7% of the cake from to begin with? Is it in terms of weight? surface? volume? Well, grams, in², and in³ are all countable. Come to think of it, percentage = measurement ÷ measurement, and units of measure are countable by definition. Thus, 10.7% of anything is perfectly countable, and according to that mythical "rule", it should always be "fewer", and never "less". That makes no sense. – RegDwigнt Dec 17 '10 at 11:11

[Less or Fewer] than 10.7% of the people were happy.

The subject here is people as this is the noun to which the verb be in this sentence applies. The way I think about this kind of thing is to strip out the extra parts of the sentence so in this case, we'd get:

[Less or Fewer] people were happy.

It should clearly be "Fewer people were happy", so I would say the answer to the question is:

Fewer than 10.7% of the people were happy.

But I kind of agree with nohat. I think the word fewer is on its way out judging by how seldom I'm seeing/hearing it even formally. As always, people are simplifying the language. On the one hand, there's a single word, more, for both countable and uncountable, but on the other, we make a distinction with less and fewer. In a few years' time, I expect grammar books will say that less is acceptable usage for countables — in the same way that who/that is now acceptable where whom was once correct.

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Just because fewer people use it does not make it less correct. – MετάEd Aug 12 '12 at 5:06
The subject of the sentence is not people, but the whole noun phrase [Less or Fewer] than 10.7% of the people. Who were happy? Not the people, but [Less or Fewer] than 10.7% of the people. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 13 '12 at 0:08

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