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I recently wanted to ask "What is the lowest number of people?" Then I questioned whether either "What is the least number of people?" or "What is the fewest number of people?" is a superior alternative.

My guess is that the "fewest number" option is the best, grammatically speaking. Is it? In what ways are the words least, lowest, and fewest used differently?

Thank you!

  • You could also say "smallest number of people". – nnnnnn Aug 9 at 2:27
  • Far from "fewest number" being the most correct construction, indeed I believe it to be incorrect. I say this because "fewest" refers to the members of the smallest group under discussion not the size of the number used to count them. You could use "fewest" and "numbers" together because you could say "Which data set has the fewest numbers in it?" but then you are talking about the data set with the fewest items, not the size of any number. "Fewest number" doesn't make any sense to me at all because it's like saying "fewest person". – BoldBen Aug 9 at 7:50
  • @BoldBen apparently, we are being taught otherwise - "Who had the fewest number of s? Pat Charles Andrea 3. Jane has 7s. Susan has 9s. Fred has 8 s. Who has the fewest number of s? Jane Susan Fred 6. John had 9 s. Jack had 8 s. Mark had 7s. Who had the fewest number of s?" - The Complete Book of Numbers & Counting, Grades Preschool - 1 – Phil Sweet Aug 9 at 21:40
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Fewest number is not the best option. Few describes the thing being counted, not the number. If there are few people present, there are a small number of them.

For example:

"Our household produces the least amount of rubbish of those in our street."

"That box has the fewest items in it"

"That box has the smallest number of items in it." (or lowest number)

I would advise you to go with @nnnnnn's suggestion of 'the smallest number of people'.

  • Aren't numbers things that can be counted? At least some numbers are. – Mitch Aug 9 at 11:55
  • @Mitch I said 'the thing being counted' (in this particular sentence), not 'things that can be counted'. See BoldBen's comment above. – Kate Bunting Aug 9 at 13:08
  • OK, that makes sense. But then can you fill this out with examples to make that clearer? i.e. sentences with 'least (or smallest) number', 'fewest people' etc. – Mitch Aug 9 at 14:03
  • @Mitch "Our household produces the least amount of rubbish of those in our street." "That box has the fewest items in it" or "That box has the lowest number of items in it." – Kate Bunting Aug 9 at 17:55
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well for one thing it goes low, lower, least. If you talking about a species of animals, I would say "What species has the least amount of predators". If it was between two teams I would say "which team has the lower stats". If it was a singular subject " I would say something like " Lisa has a low blood pressure". Hope this helps. This is what I believe is right. For fewer I would say something like "There are fewer people in Africa then in America" * don't know if that fact is true

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    "Lowest" is the superlative of "low". "Least" is the superlative of "little"/"less". Discussed here. – Thomas Taylor Aug 9 at 3:26

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