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GMAT Grammar: Less vs. Fewer

Overcoming some of the most common grammar mistakes

In the business world, there are plenty of numbers, and those numbers are always in flux, going up or down.  Not surprisingly, many of the sentences you will correct on the GMAT have topics that discuss quantities of various things and how those quantities change.  Much of the language to discuss quantities is quite familiar and intuitive, where mere familiarity with spoken English is more than enough preparation.  Unfortunately, the spoken English all around us contains a couple screaming errors, errors that will sound correct to us because we hear them said all the time.

 

The Big Diagram for the Language of Comparing Quantities

The first thing we need to clarify is: Of the many things in the world that increase and decrease, some come in countable units, while others, though you can have more or less of them, cannot be counted.

Quantities that come in countable units include anything you can count: cars, trips to Hawaii, dollars, tasks, orders, units of time, units of length, elected officials, countries, etc.  Anything you can count.

Quantities that are inherently uncountable include: sickness, health, patience, knowledge, travel, work, time, length, democracy, and justice.  Anything which you can’t count, but of which you can have more or less.

Below are examples of words and phrases used with countable and uncountable quantities. Pay attention to what sounds unfamiliar.

Now, I’m going to make a prediction: the examples that sound awkward are all in the “COUNTABLE” slots, especiall #4, #6, #8, and possibly #9.  That’s where most people make mistakes.  These mistakes are pervasive: have you ever seen, at the checker in the grocery store, the embarrassingly ungrammatical sign that says, “Ten items or less”?!?

If you’re clear about this distinction, you will experience less uncertainty on the Sentence Correction questions, and you will make fewer mistakes.

 1. Asking About Quantity

UNCOUNTABLE: how muchHow much does she travel? How much time did you work on that?

COUNTABLE: how manyHow many trips does she take? How many hours did you work on that?

 2. Comparing Equal Quantities

UNCOUNTABLE: as much as: Does your professor have as much knowledge as mine?

COUNTABLE: as many as: Has your professor written as many books as mine?

 3. Increase, Comparative

UNCOUNTABLE: more: Is Albert Pujols more talented than Ichiro Suzuki?

COUNTABLE: more: Does Albert Pujols have more RBIs than Ichiro Suzuki?

 4.  Decrease, Comparative

UNCOUNTABLE: less: Is grandpa less argumentative now? In a week, you should eat less ice cream.

COUNTABLE: fewer: Does grandpa have fewer arguments now? In a week, you should eat fewer servings of ice cream.

 5. Intensification, for an increase

UNCOUNTABLE: how much moreHow much more distance will we have to travel?

COUNTABLE: how many moreHow many more miles will we have to travel?

6. Intensification, for an decrease

UNCOUNTABLE: how much less: Consider how much less money you would have left if you bought the expensive kind.

COUNTABLE: how many fewer: Consider how many fewer of these you would have been able to buy if you bought the expensive kind.

7. The extreme of an increase

UNCOUNTABLE: too much: He reads too much.  She has too much pride to apply for that job.

COUNTABLE: too many: He has too many books.  She has too many degrees to apply for that job.

8. The extreme of a decrease

UNCOUNTABLE: too little: Unfortunately, we did too little advertising for this event.

COUNTABLE: too few: Unfortunately, too few people attended this event.

9. Word referring to the quantity

UNCOUNTABLE: amount: No amount of hand-wringing will solve this problem. This amount of mashed potatoes should be enough for dinner.

COUNTABLE: number:  No number of calls to your mother will solve this problem. This number of baked potatoes should be enough for dinner.

Here’s a practice question on these themes:

10) http://gmat.magoosh.com/questions/3563

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14 Responses to GMAT Grammar: Less vs. Fewer

  1. Toby Okonkwo November 21, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    Small typo: #8 should read The extreme of a decrease.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 22, 2016 at 4:15 pm #

      Hi Toby,

      Thank you for the typo catch! We appreciate the help from our Magoosh extended family! 😀

  2. Nhi February 23, 2016 at 1:35 am #

    Hi Mike,
    Thank you for this amazing article! I have a question (maybe a silly one).

    “This amount of mashed potatoes should be enough for dinner.” Since ‘amount’ is used with uncountable nouns, the plural form of potato in this sentence confuses me. I have never had mashed potatoes, but I thought ‘it’ would be something that has already ‘mashed’ and thus could not be counted as whole, separate objects.

    So, what did I fail to understand here?

    I very appreciate your help, Mike!
    Nhi

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 23, 2016 at 10:59 am #

      Hi Nhi,

      It seems like you have understood that “mashed potatoes” cannot be counted because, as you stated, they are already mashed! However, they are always plural. This is just something you should memorize 🙂

      We never say “mashed potato” except in the unlikely event that we are referring to one potato that has been mashed.

  3. Edgar May 15, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    Excellent lessons! In math we use greater than and less than for numbers: is that because the actual object/units are typically unknown? So, 5 is less than 20 but five cars is fewer than six cars.

    Thanks,

    Edgar

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike McGarry May 16, 2015 at 11:39 am #

      Dear Edgar,
      I’m happy to respond. 🙂 What you ask is an excellent and deep question. Here’s what I’ll say.
      Mathematics as such began with the ancient Greeks; some historians say that Pythagoras (570 – 495 BCE) was the first mathematician. Of course, folks knew how to count long before that. For millennia before the Greeks, folks knew about five cows, or five bushels of grain, and they knew that, for example, 20 cows was more than five cows. The Greeks were the first to ask: what is 5 itself? Not 5 cows or 5 physical things of any kind, no, the pure number itself. This number has properties of its own: 5 is odd, 5 is prime, etc. That was the beginning of mathematics. As long as we are using numbers to count physical things, we are not really doing math in any sense of the word. Properly, it’s only when we consider pure numbers, numbers that, at the outset, have absolutely no reference to anything in the real world—only then, are we truly doing math.
      When a number is a mathematical object, by definition, it has no physical referent. The mathematical number 5 is, by definition, not 5 of anything at all. We could use the metaphor: real world numbers are always married to their object. In the phrase “five cows,” the 5 gets its meaning from the noun it modifiers. Real numbers are married to real things. Pure mathematical numbers are celibate, not in relationship to anything outside of mathematics. It’s not that there is an unknown object: rather, there is no object at all.
      This is why the grammar is different. Grammar always follows meaning. When I say “5 cows is fewer than 20 cows,” I am using real world numbers referring to real world things: I am not the realm of pure mathematics. When I say, “5 is less than 20,” that is a statement of pure mathematics, and its truth is axiomatic and entirely independent of any reference to the real world. It’s a completely different category of statement, which is precisely why the grammar is different.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Edgar May 16, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

        Sure, I can accept that! Thanks, for the discussion. To summarize there are three logical categories for which the grammar follows for expressing decreases. The SC of the GMAT will focus primarily on countable versus uncountable. While the QR will not focus on the grammar, it is good to have a general reason for this concession. Here’s to making the gray matter less opaque with fewer blurred lines! 😉

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike McGarry May 18, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

          Dear Edgar,
          You are quite welcome, my friend! 🙂 Your clever wit evinces a sharp mind that will stand you in good stead on test day! Best of luck!
          Mike 🙂

      • amir July 20, 2016 at 2:43 am #

        Hi Mike,

        Can I assume that whenever the word number appears I am dealing with an uncountable comparison?

        Because I don’t really get way in the example bellow we are not “using numbers to count physical things”..

        “Organizers claimed that the rally for public health care drew close to half a million people, But the city officials estimated the number of people at the rally to be less than 300,000.”

        Thanks,

        Amir

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 20, 2016 at 2:41 pm #

          The answer to this question is tricky, Amir. When the word “number” appears, you are either dealing with a countable comparison, or a statement of pure mathematics. As Mike alluded to in his earlier comment, a statement of pure mathematics is neither countable nor uncountable. This is because both countable and uncountable comparisons deal with real things: less sand, fewer grains of sand, etc….

          A pure mathematical expression doesn’t deal with anything real– it just deals with numbers. Pure mathematical expressions happen to use the same quantity adjectives as uncountable expressions, because in both cases nothing can be counted. (EX: “I’d like less juice” and “x is 5 less than 2y”). But they are not the same thing, exactly.

          In the example you gave, it would probably be best to say “fewer than 300,000,” instead of “less than 300,000,” because the word “number” is followed by the countable plural noun “people.”

          However, suppose the word “people” was removed from the clause, to make the clause “but city officials estimated the number at the rally to be less than 3,000.” In that case, “less” might be OK, as the clause could be treated as a standalone clause that just references numbers, albeit in connection to a noun in a different clause. That kind of ambiguity won’t come up on the GMAT, however.

  4. Confuse Mind August 17, 2012 at 3:32 am #

    Can you please add the differences in the usage of ‘more’ and ‘greater’.
    I remember some questions in which this distinction was important.

    Thanks!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike August 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

      In general, if you are just referring to the material itself, you use “more” —- “more work”, “more money”, “more dogs”, “more houses”, etc.
      The word “greater” refer specifically to anything that is numerical —
      “The taxation rate is greater than the interest rate.”
      Both of those are numbers, so we use “greater”.
      If you are just talking about the objects, you use “more” — “more baseballs” — but if you add in the word “quantity” or “number”, that changes it — “a greater quantity of baseballs”, “a greater number of baseballs” — now, you are comparing, not objects, but numbers, so you used “greater”.
      Does that make sense?
      Mike

      • Confuse Mind August 17, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

        Thanks a ton Mike 🙂
        So, kind of you for writing such good articles and following-up.

        If I got this correct:

        My height is greater than Ram’s – correct
        My height is more than Ram’s – wrong

        One more small doubt foe less vs fewer
        You have fewer than 10 seconds.
        vs
        You have less than 10 seconds.

        I have more dollars than you.
        vs
        I have fewer dollars than you.

        Another, is lesser incorrect on GMAT?

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike August 18, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

          Yes, I agree with the sentences about Ram & height.
          The sentence about 10 seconds — tricky, because time itself takes “less”, so often you will see “less” in that context, although technically, “fewer” is correct. Similarly, money itself takes “less”, so you will often hear “less than 10 dollars”, although again, “fewer” is correct.
          I cannot think of a context on the GMAT for which “lesser” would be correct.
          Mike 🙂


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