• Adjectives

      Appropriate adjective use is important in academic writing, but of course which adjectives should be used or avoided depends entirely on the field of study. In general, informal adjectives should be avoided; correctly using adjective pairs like “former” and “latter” can increase the formality level of the text.

      • fewer / less

        The comparative adjectives fewer and less are often confused. In general, fewer is used for countable things (like minutes, books, words, etc.), while less is used for non-countable things (like water, sand, etc.). However, there are some common exceptions.

        The phrase less than is used for explicitly mathematical comparisons, even when a countable noun is being referred to. (The noun in the following sentence is “ways”, and therefore the comparative adjective should technically be fewer.)

        There are 981, or slightly less than 2×10E77, possible ways to fill out a 9×9 sudoku grid.

        Another common exception occurs when discussing time. For instance, in the sentence “I will be there in less than five minutes,” the “five minutes” is considered to be a distinct unit of time, even though ‘minute’ is a countable noun. But in other cases regarding time, fewer is clearly the correct word.

        It will take fewer years to implement pollution controls than thought.

        [Some cases are simply ambiguous, if the noun is neither clearly countable nor non-countable.]