Q&A: Percentages: Is it fewer than or less than?

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Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the English language. And this week, we are 100% sure that would like to know about percentages and fewer/less…

Q: Hi AWC, I was wondering if we’d ever discussed the whole fewer vs less thing?
A: We sure have – you can find that chat right here. Essentially it’s fewer for things you can count (like “songs” or “raindrops”), and less for things that you can’t (such as “noise” or “rain”).

Q: Okay, that’s right. I remember now. I was booking a flight the other day and the airline had “fewer than five seats left” on their website.
A: That airline is correct.

Q: But supermarkets with “8 items or less” signs aren’t correct?
A: You should boycott that supermarket.

Q: Alright. I’ll just wait while you hop down from that high horse. You must have a great view from up there.
A: We like it.

Q: So here’s the thing – what about percentages?
A: We’re not 100% sure about what you mean.

Q: We mean that when reporting a percentage, should it be “fewer than” or “less than”? For example, if 9% of writers have a problem with procrastinating –
A: Clearly unrealistic. Should be closer to 99%.

Q: Yes. Anyway, would we say “fewer than 10% of writers” or “less than 10% of writers”?
A: Ah, this one is debated a lot. Some argue that it should follow the same “countable” rule with whatever you’re representing – and as you can count writers, it would be “fewer than”. So it would be “fewer than 10% of writers” but “less than 10% of the cake”.

Q: I’m sure if there was a writer, cake and procrastination involved, there WOULD be less than 10% of the cake left.
A: Good point.

Q: But doesn’t “less than” just sound better for all percentages?
A: Well, many style guides agree that percentages should be part of the exceptions to the less/fewer rule, which includes plural noun measures of time, money and distance.

Q: Examples?
A: “Less than two weeks” or “less than $1,000” or “less than five kilometres”.

Q: So they think regardless of whether it’s cake or writers, it should be “less than” for both?
A: That’s what they think.

Q: What do YOU think?
A: We think that it’s only been since the 18th century that people started throwing down their shopping baskets of eight items in disgust. Prior to that, “less” was widely accepted.

Q: Yes, but so was slavery and burning witches at the stake. Your point?
A: Our point is to be consistent. If you’re going to use “less than” when dealing with percentages, just make sure you use it exclusively. However, if you’re going to pick and choose based on the things they are quantifying, you’ll need to take greater care. Different style guides have different opinions, so if you’re writing for a publication or company, see if they have a policy on it.

Q: And of course you could just stop generalising and say the actual figure of “9%”…
A: You could, but we all love a good generalisation.

Q: By the way, should I have said “nine percent” or “nine per cent”, instead of “9%”?
A: Another style guide thing. Either the first or last examples are the most common – often it’s best to use words in something more literary and numerals/symbols for something more scientific or statistical. The middle one is less common, but many publications such as Fairfax use “per cent”.

Q: Thanks for that. Now, is there any of that procrasti-cake left?