Is it proper to speak of units of a continuous quantity as if they are discrete or continuous?

For example, I never know whether I should say that some food has "less calories" than another food (because the calorie is a unit of energy, which is continuous) or that it has "fewer calories" (since the calorie is a unit of measure and spoken of in plural).

  • 3
    possible duplicate of "Less" vs. "fewer" – FumbleFingers Aug 13 '15 at 16:14
  • 3
    Regardless of whether you think of it as a unit of energy or measure, a calorie is still a unit (that's to say, you can count them - they don't represent a "continuum", like, say, volume or weight). – FumbleFingers Aug 13 '15 at 16:18
  • @FumbleFingers I guess I don't really understand the rule. You can have parts of calories – Daniel Aug 13 '15 at 16:30
  • @FumbleFingers I also don't think this is a duplicate of that question because that question asks about what the difference is in general. I know that the difference is continuous vs. discrete but my question is about how the rule is applied in a particular case. – Daniel Aug 13 '15 at 16:37
  • 1
    As the top answer on the linked question indicates, the relevant "rule" is a piece of pedantic poppycock that's always been either unknown to or ignored by the vast majority of native speakers. But in the case of, say, calories, you can tell they're always countable because we never say How much calorie(s) does this cake contain? - it's always How many calories? – FumbleFingers Aug 13 '15 at 16:39

The rule is simple, and you obviously know it: discrete quantities require the use of "fewer" and continuous quantities require the use of "less".

Calorie, as a unit, requires the use of "fewer". Energy, as a continuum, requires the use of "less".

"Fewer calories means less energy."

In the same way, although it's a bit awkward, one should refer to units of volume with "fewer" and volume itself as "less".

"Fewer liters means less volume."

  • 2
    The true situation is far from simple. 'That's one less problem' has acquired idiomatic status. And few people would say 'Today's journey means we've fewer miles to do tomorrow.' The 'fewer/less' issue is only one aspect. We'd use '20 miles is a long way to walk', '10 minutes is not enough', '2 pints is ample' etc. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 13 '15 at 18:15
  • Idioms are irregular by nature. What rule in English would be complete without an exception? And you're right that "We've fewer miles to do tomorrow" is rarer than "We have less distance to travel tomorrow." Sometimes a correct form is awkward, but using "less miles" or "fewer distance" would be incorrect in any case, so the rule stands. Also, "long" describes "way," not "miles"; "not enough" is followed by an implied "time"; and "ample" is followed by an implied "volume". While these adjectives can't be applied to discrete units, discrete units can be in the same sentence. – CoachMcGuirk Aug 18 '15 at 11:22
  • 2
    A bald '[t]he rule is simple' is misleading. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 18 '15 at 16:58
  • Edwin meant "idiomatic" in the sense of it being ordinary and typical English, not "related to an idiom" in the way you seem to have understood it. These expressions are NOT irregular by nature. "Less than five litres" is another example. This answer is at best incomplete and very misleading. – Zebrafish Jan 12 at 0:36

In formal writing, say fewer calories, because that's the correct one.

In the grocery store you can use either one. Suppose you and your slightly overweight pre-teen are in the grocery store reading nutrition facts together. You might say, "I agree, this one's the better choice -- it has less calories and more fiber and protein."

However, you'll always need to say, "How many calories does such-and-so have?"

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.