The way I tend to apply the less vs. fewer rule is:

  • If I can count it, it's fewer - (Drink fewer glasses of water.)
  • If I can't count it, it's less - (Drink less water.)

But when it comes to numbers and time, I usually see less where either less or fewer seem to apply, for example:

  • Less than 24 hours ago
  • Fewer than 24 hours ago
  • 10 items or less
  • 10 items or fewer

I can count hours and items, and I can count to 24 and 10, but I can't count a 24 or 10.

Even though I see less applied, which is actually correct?

  • 1
    10 items or less is technically ungrammatical. It should be 10 items or fewer. This is a hot topic for grammarians who don't like grocery store advertising. But despite it being strictly wrong, it's still become idiomatic. (And increasingly correct through usage.) As for the time, it depends on how you're using it. If you're counting actual hours, then (strictly speaking) it should be fewer. (Fewer than 24 hours remain.) But, again, idiomatic usage has made both common. Jan 26 '19 at 23:20
  • Because you are confusing the attributes of the thing being measured with the notation of the measurement system. Time is semantically a continuum, like a sandy beach. Our habit of dividing it into numerable units doesn't change that. Also note that non-countable nouns, mass nouns, and continua aren't the same thing. Your taxonomy is a bit deficient.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 26 '19 at 23:54
  • @PhilSweet But my program uses less than 8KB of RAM, and they are definitely things I can count. Even though 1KB is easily broken down, and even bytes are easily broken down, you get to 1 bit and stop. We don't say our programs use fewer than 8KB of RAM.
    – Ed Grimm
    Jan 27 '19 at 2:25
  • 1
    @EdGrimm "fewer than 8 kilobytes of RAM" still sounds correct to me. And what are you using, a ZX Spectrum? XD Jan 27 '19 at 21:21
  • 1
    More relevant might be what program? The only one I can think of that I've used lately that takes less than 8K of RAM is a stripped down version of /bin/true. ;)
    – Ed Grimm
    Jan 27 '19 at 22:10

When a phrase beginning with a number denotes an uninterrupted sequence, eg. ten minutes, ten miles, ten kilos, it is the sequence as a whole that is being modified. Hence, "less than ten minutes" means "in a time shorter than a ten-minute duration."

Where the minutes are not contiguous, however, and we are actually counting them, then "fewer" can be used, as in "exercise breaks last up to a minute; in one hour, take fewer than ten minutes." If the time is one uninterrupted unit, we would say "take less than ten minutes."

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