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?

  • The planted hectare was lesser in the previous year, than at present.
    – user26622
    Sep 27, 2012 at 12:24
  • 5
    Lesser is an adjective. Less is an adverb. Everything else follows.
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 27, 2012 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, 2012 at 12:56
  • I don't think you can use an article (a/the) with less, but you can with lesser. Less punishment, but the lesser punishment. The lesser punishment is the one the punishments you have to choose from. Less punishment is a smaller quantity of a particular punishment.
    – Jim Newton
    Feb 3, 2020 at 13:30

2 Answers 2


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.
  • Being pelted with rotten tomatoes is a lesser punishment than being pelted with rocks.
  • 2
    I think you meant "Being pelted with rotten tomatoes..." Sep 27, 2012 at 12:59


  • 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).

  • Even if you don't mention it explicitly, 'less' does compare to something (unless you're in advertising).
    – Sam
    May 10, 2011 at 22:47
  • what is the equivalent for "more"?
    – skan
    Jan 9, 2017 at 19:48

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