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When is “less” appropriate vs. “fewer”?

Which is more correct "fewer than hundred people" or "less than hundred people"? According to my grammar book, "few' is used for number where as "less" is used to imply quantity,so I think "fewer than hundred people" is more correct but Google ngrams speaks otherwise.

Which is more correct?

  • 3
    Whichever version you use, most people won't think there's anything odd about the choice of fewer/less. What they will notice is that it should be than a hundred. The article there is absolutely required, and far more important than a choice of word which many people get 'wrong'. Jul 12 '11 at 16:32
  • Use terms "fewer than a hundred people" and "less than a hundred people", and you will find Ngram shows about the same percentage of usages for recent years.
    – Yongwei Wu
    Jul 6 '14 at 0:32

Well, for reasons you've already seen, it depends on your definition of "correct".

If by "correct", you mean "conforming with usage in the type of literature/writing/speech that I wish to use", then the ngram results give you a partial answer, but you may also wish to have a look at some of the actual results and see what genre of writing they're from, or look at results specifically from the literature corpus if you're interested in fairly "formal" usage. But as a generality, both "less" and "fewer" are possible in this case, as evidenced in the figures you have.

If by "correct" you mean "conforming with the usage stipulated in my grammar book", then you know which usage your grammar book advocates, and you need to think about whether you actually find the grammar book's argumentation convincing and compelling, and whether you have any particular reason to go with its recommendation rather than your evidence of actual usage.

P.S. In any case, you need to include the "a" in "a hundred".

  • 1
    I just think it's ironic that OP asks about a usage that really is a "yesterday's pedant" issue, while apparently not noticing the "missing article" which seriously marks out either example as poor English. Jul 12 '11 at 16:36
  • 1
    Many languages don't use an article before "hundred", and this is a global board, so I think we can forgive him (unless he's Welsh or French -- don't give 'em an inch!) Jul 12 '11 at 16:43
  • 2
    The mistake doesn't matter per se. But it is symptomatic of something that learning about nonsensical pedantry is ranked more highly on the list of 'things to learn' than the grammatical forms of numbers. Jul 12 '11 at 16:48

Oh, this has been a bone of contention in proscriptive circles for quite a while.

The "use fewer only for countables and less only for non-countables" debate has raged ridiculously and futilely in the background, while speakers and writers of English have completely ignored it.

The discussion arose because fewer can't be used for non-countables, so a number of (very loud) people got the idea that less should only be used for non-countables, to balance it.

That's all very nice, and all very logical, but unfortunately it's nonsense, because less has always been used in every native dialect for both countables and non-countables, and wishing that it weren't won't make it stop.

Bottom line:

-- If the person paying you to write or marking your work insists on your following this matter of style, follow it.

-- If your writing isn't being paid or marked, use the one that feels best to you in the sentence.

-- If someone challenges your (unpaid) usage of less for a countable, ask him if he truly believes that twelve is not less than twenty.


"Fewer than a hundred people" is correct. "Less than a hundred people" is also acceptable; the difference is whether you are referring to a "number" of your thing, or an "amount" of your thing. "People", in the scope of a crowd of them, can be referred to in either way.

"Fewer" should only be used with a countable noun (like "person"/"people"), while "less" can be used with either countable or uncountable nouns. I digress, but it's related: the phrase "less than a hundred degrees" is generally preferred, even though "degrees" is countable, because you are still implying an "amount" of something uncountable, in this case temperature.

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