Watch your step!  5 quantity-related word pairs that can trip you up.

These five quantity-related word pairs all have to do with distinctions between quantities and numbers of people and objects. Don’t let them bamboozle you!

     1 Less vs Fewer

 Almost every day, an editor, writer, or grammar pedant is yelling at the radio, tv, or paper: “FEWER!! FEWER!! It’s FEWER, not LESS!!” Yet most people don’t know the difference. Aisles in the supermarkets are labelled “10 items or less”. Does it matter? Well, yes, to people who value, not just language, but complexity, distinction, accuracy. A rich and useful vocabulary. We can’t expect the supermarkets to change their signage, but we can try to use the correct term in our writing and speech.

There’s a very simple rule of thumb to remember  the difference between less and fewer: If you can count the objects -e.g.- 9 items in your shopping basket – then you have fewer objects. If you have a pile of stuff, like spilt sugar,  and you compare it to what’s left in the packet, then you you can say there’s less in the packet (or less on the bench if you only spilt a little).

REMEMBER:If you can count them, they are fewer

2 Comprised vs Composed

This is another pair, that like fewer and less, is related to quantity. They are increasingly confused, and often considered as synonyms, but there is still a difference in formal writing. Comprised implies a whole; composed of implies a number of people or items. A committee may be composed of Ms Abbib, Mr Johnson, Lady Smyth-Wellington, and Mr Chan. Or you could say, “The committee comprised four people: Ms Abbib, Mr Johnson, Lady Smyth-Wellington, and Mr Chan.” Remember, composed always takes ‘of’, because it refers to a collection of separate people or things. Comprised never takes ‘of’, since it refers to the whole (“the committee”).

REMEMBER: Comprised refers to the whole thing; composed refers to its separate parts

3 Contains vs Includes

This is another distinction between quantities pair that many people confuse or consider as synonyms. The key to remembering the difference is to think of two boxes – say two crates of vegetables. The carrot crate contains bunches of carrots. It only has carrots in it. The vegetables in the other crate include beetroots and pumpkins as well as carrots. The carrot crate does not include any other vegetables. It contains only one type of veggie. There is more than one type of veggie in the other crate because it includes beetroots and pumpkins in with the carrots.

REMEMBER: Contains refers to one type of thing; includes refers to different things

4 Between vs Among

This pair has similarities with Less and Fewer. If you have only two people to give one item, like a double pass to the latest blockbuster, you will have to choose between them. If you have several of the double passes you can divide them between the two of them. If you all go to the movies together, you could sit between your friends.

On the other hand, suppose there are 500 needy pensioners, and you have $500,000 to give away. You could share the money fairly among them all. Or you could keep the money and be one wealthy person among the crowd of pensioners.

REMEMBER: You can only be can only be between two people or things : e.g. “a rock and a hard place”.

5 Both/All vs Each

Suppose you decide to give your two friends double passes to that blockbuster movie. If you give them both a double pass, did you give them one each or one double pass to share?  It’s confusing! An example of this appeared in a recent Guardian newspaper article about proposed funding for the plebiscite on marriage equality. The journalist wrote: “Cabinet has approved plans to give $7.5m to both the ‘yes’ and ’no’ campaigns…” Since the total funding for the campaigns is $15m, the journalist’s phrasing left me wondering what happened to the other $7.5m? What they should have written, of course is “to each of the ‘yes’ and ’no’ campaigns”.

All can be treated the same way as both. In the example of the wealthy donor and the pensioners, you could give each person $1000, or you could give all the group the $500,000.

REMEMBER: When sharing,  Each = one for one; both = between the two. All = for everyone.


You can find helpful pointers on the use of grammar and punctuation in the Commonwealth of Australia Style Manual, and Mark Tredinnick’s Little Green Grammar Book.

Until next time,



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