A reader wrote in asking for the correct grammar for this phrase: “less than ten years’ experience.” Should it be “fewer than ten years’ experience”? I’m so happy you asked about this point of grammar, which is so often flouted in spoken American English that most people had forgotten it just when grocery stores finally conceded: it’s the difference between count and noncount nouns. How fabulous! Let’s dig in.
First, the rule:
- Use less for noncount nouns; fewer for count.
- Use much for noncount nouns; many for count.
Count nouns are nouns representing items you can count, such as knives and spoons, and noncount nouns describe things that come in mass quantities that you cannot count, such as water, time, food, and—get this—money.
A good test for whether a noun is count or noncount is to ask “How many _____ do you have?” If the question makes sense, and you can answer it with a number, you have a count noun. “How many knives do you have? Ten knives.” Knives is a count noun. “How many money do you have? Seven moneys.” Um, no. That does not make sense. Money is actually a noncount noun, even though people count their money all the time! What they are really counting is dollars, and dollars is a count noun.
Now let’s put “fewer” and “less” in there. “I have fewer knives than spoons,” but “I have less time than money.” Fewer pennies = less money. Many mouths = less food.
“Less than ten years’ experience” is a difficult phrase because it contains both a count noun, “years,” and a noncount noun, “experience.” How many years? Ten. But how much experience? Well, ten years’ worth of experience. This phrase is describing an amount of a noncount noun, experience, so less is the correct word.
So what is the deal with the grocery stores? They used to have sign over one lane that said “Ten items or less.” Grammatically astute shoppers over the years wrote in so many complaints that many, if not all, grocery stores have changed the signs to read “Ten items or fewer.” Meanwhile, in the spoken language, we routinely say things like “Describe your qualifications for the job in 50 words or less,” and “You may enter the amusement park ride in groups of five or less.” The Gregg Reference Manual, which I must thank for those last two examples, even goes so far as to say that even though fewer would be correct in these situations, less is more often used, and that in casual writing or speech—such as in grocery stores!—less sounds better.
The upshot of this conflicting information is that the formal rules disagree with colloquial, spoken American English, but in formal writing you must still follow the rules. Fewer and fewer people will notice, however, if you get less wrong.