When do we use less or fewer? A correspondent asks whether to use less or fewer in the following sentence: “…the measure failed by less than three votes.” Of all types of nouns, votes are obviously countable, since it’s the counted number that’s the important point.
The rule about using “less” for uncountable and “fewer” for countable, is quite vague. Using “less” here may be slightly less correct in formal English, but can’t be totally condemned. Here’s why:
When it comes to less or fewer Grammar Girl supports the use of fewer with countable nouns. However, Grammar Girl says the exceptions are quantities of time, money, distance, and weight. Read on to see how these are different.
The New York Times (which I consider an authority) supports the use of fewer in this sentence. This one is interesting because it clarifies the exception beyond Grammar Girl’s categories. Use less when the quantity is considered as a whole. In its example, the number of weeks is offered as a countable quantity of time but considered as a bulk unit. This aligns with what Grammar Girl recommended since time, money, distance, and weight are usually considered as bulk units.
Finally, the Chicago Manual of Style points out that historically the usage has not been so clear. The “rule” was adopted in the 19th century, which was also a time when numerous grammatical rules were imposed in English with varying underlying grammatical logic. If one takes a descriptivist approach to grammar (Is the meaning clear? Do native speakers use this construction?) then there is no problem with “less than three votes.” It’s only a prescriptivist approach that demands adherence to the less/fewer rule for uncountable/countable nouns.
The bottom line: less is wrong-ish, but don’t get into a fight about it.