Fewer mistakes equal less embarrassment

Editor's note: Starting today we're going to do our part to improve literacy in Southern Oregon by running a new weekly column called "Say it Right" by retired Medford English teacher Sandi Ekberg.

It might seem like a small thing, but it can make quite a big difference in clarity and impression when it matters most: The words "less" and "fewer" are not interchangeable.

When speaking to your boss, a client, doctor, neighbor or young person who is learning, using these words correctly can make a really distinctive impact on your message.

It is very simple: "less" applies to bulk, while "fewer" refers to items that can be counted.

Joe has less milk in his glass. Mary's glass has fewer ounces of milk.

That costs less money. I have fewer dollars now.

This book holds less interest. It has fewer areas of curiosity.

Less rain; fewer drops. Less snow; fewer flakes.

Be sure not to say: less cars, less details, less cookies, less pills, less people. It should be fewer cars, fewer details, fewer pills, fewer people.

And I'll add this note: if the subject is plural, it can probably be counted, so it needs "fewer." Fewer donuts, not less donuts.

— Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years, with a special interest in vocabulary, grammar and usage.

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