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Less vs Fewer: The supermarket signs, 10 items or less?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by KON, Sep 22, 2008.

  1. KON

    KON Senior Member

    Hi everyone!

    I recently had a debate about the grammaticaly correct usage between less and fewer and can't really get an accurate answer.

    According to grammar books, less and fewer are used as comparatives, where fewer is used when you are talking about items that can be counted individually eg. fewer bananas and less with uncountable items eg less water.

    Has anyone been to a supermarket recently and seen at the checkout the sign above saying Less than 10 items only? Is this grammaticaly correct?

     
  2. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Your grammar book is "right". The supermarket signs saying Ten items or less signs are "wrong".

    You will find an interesting account of some recent developments in this area in a BBC News Magazine article:
    When to use 'fewer' rather than 'less'?

     
  3. KON

    KON Senior Member

    I just read the article and it's quite interesting. I just wonder how is it possible that Tesco did such a mistake, after all it's a supermarket chain in the UK.
     
  4. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    "Five items or less."
    Tesco was not alone. This sign is commonplace in the UK.
     
  5. kitenok Senior Member

    There is an interesting previous thread here about the "X items or less/fewer" debate.

    I wonder whether other grocery chains have been targeted by the same letter-writing linguists that got to Tesco in Britain: I recently moved to a different city with a different grocery chain and, for what I believe is the first time in my life, saw a "12 items or fewer" sign marking the express lane.
     
  6. kitenok refers to a previous thread and there forero in comment #7 brings up the very good point that we all talk about numbers in math as being more or less, not more or fewer. So when we talk about numbers, essentially applying math skills such as counting to the real world (We have 7 items; the limit is 10. Is 7 less than 10? Yes, 7 is less. So we have less than the limit.), is it so surprising that that math terminology creeps in? (ok, ok, ok; so we have fewer than the limit, if you like...) But it still seems kind of odd that l get less miles per gallon in my big car even though I go fewer miles while I'm using a gallon (compared to my small car). And then when I'm not comparing but just stating a fact about poor gas mileage in the sentence "I get (some low quantity of) miles per gallon ", can't I go back to "few" for that? And if I say I get few miles per gallon, why can't I say fewer miles per gallon than in some other car..."? And then maybe I can just say "low miles per gallon" thinking of the mpg as a rate. It just does'nt seem to me that English has really got this fewer or less thing pinned down all the way, really.
     
  7. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    But I don't think that's right - surely it should strictly be "fewer miles to the gallon". Why do you say it is not? Miles are countable, thus "fewer". You certainly would go "less distance" because "distance" is uncountable.
     
  8. johndot Senior Member

    English - England
    The starting-point of the argument seems to be quite cut-and-dried: fewer and less mean the same thing, but fewer is used with countable nouns, and less with uncountables.

    What everyone seems to be ignoring, though, is that this simple rule only applies when the noun appears with the comparative, as in less shopping and fewer items. But where the quantifier less is separated from the countable noun items by another comparative—than—then less doesn’t have to change to the irregular mode ‘fewer’.

    So while you should say, correctly, fewer items than 10, you can say less than 10 items.

    From this point of view, paulroberts analogy with maths was not misplaced: if two negatives make a positive, why shouldn’t two comparatives negate the irregular?
     
  9. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    On this point, johndot, you are putting your finger in the air to every grammatical purist and pedant in the land.

    As it never bothered me to stand in line at the "Ten items or less", except when I was standing behind some idiot with 11 items, your finger passes me by :)
     
  10. KHS

    KHS Senior Member

    While 'fewer' is technically/grammatically the correct form with count nouns, over 25 years ago (when I was in graduate school), one ESL teacher in a mock rant scolded every other academic ESL instructor in the large, cubicle-filled teachers' room, "How can I get my students to learn 'fewer' with count nouns when all of you say 'less'????!!!!"

    Personally, I use "under" in many cases to avoid the issue.
     
  11. johndot Senior Member

    English - England
    On this point, johndot, you are putting your finger in the air to every grammatical purist and pedant in the land. (panjandrum, post #9)

    Hmm, well it was an unintentional ‘finger in the air’ I hasten to assure everyone—and even if it hadn’t been (unintentional), it certainly wouldn’t have been meant rudely!

    Rather than that, I was being devil’s advocate: I see my suggestion as a valid proposition; after all, it’s not unusual for a ‘fixed’ grammatical rule to vary when/if another element is introduced to the sentence.
     
  12. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    My impression is that in general usage 9 times out of 10 people just use "less" and ignore "fewer" completely. I'd say it's a grammatical consideration that is dying out. It's easy to see why too - the most robust grammatical considerations tend to be those that add extra information. Here there is no meaningful choice between "fewer" and "less" - the usage depends on the category of the following noun. The choice between the two is a pure burden on the memory and ripe to die out. The less grammatical rules the better as far as I'm concerned!:D
     
  13. As long as the meaning isn't blurred of course. :)
     
  14. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    But that's my point - when could the meaning be blurred? If it's a countable noun you use one if uncountable the other. It never gives "extra" information or nuance.
     
  15. I'm with you on this one. I didn't mean this particular example though. I just meant I also think the less rules, the better (as long as meaning remains clear). :) Here it does, no question about it.
     
  16. stigand New Member

    English
    There is method to Tesco's madness.

    Consider:
    "You should have added less sugar."
    "You should have added less than 500 grammes of sugar." [NOT "fewer than 500 grammes of sugar"]
    "How much sugar should I have used?" "Less than 500 grammes."

    By this logic:
    "I have less shopping than the other people at the checkout."
    "I have less than five items of shopping." [NOT "fewer than five items of shopping" - or at least, both sound OK.]
    "How much shopping do you have?" "Less than five items."

    The "less" is referring to an unspoken non-count noun, namely shopping, that is being measured in "items" the way sugar is measured in grammes.
     
  17. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    I don't follow your argument here at all. "I have less that five items of shopping" is not standard English (although, of course common to hear as the above discussion makes clear) - it should be "fewer", even if you do write it in all caps.
     
  18. stigand New Member

    English
    Sorry for the capitals.

    The case for "less than five items" is eloquently made by Mark Liberman, the linguistics professor in the article "If it was good enough for King Alfred the Great" on his blog Language Log. I'm afraid I can't link to it, because this site won't let me. But if you Google "liberman five items or less", it's the top hit.

    Liberman cites both the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage and Google searches of English-language newspapers, in support of "five items or less".
     
  19. johndot Senior Member

    English - England
    The case for "less than five items" is eloquently made by Mark Liberman, the linguistics professor in the article "If it was good enough for King Alfred the Great" on his blog Language Log. I'm afraid I can't link to it, because this site won't let me. But if you Google "liberman five items or less", it's the top hit.
    Liberman cites both the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage and Google searches of English-language newspapers, in support of "five items or less".
    (stigand, post #18, extract)

    I feel moved to say that if King Alfred the Great had had less sleep, he wouldn’t have had fewer cakes—but that’s just being trite, I suppose.

    So instead I’ll say that “five items or less (than that)” or “five items or fewer (than five)” are the right ways for supermarkets to point their customers in the direction of the ‘express’ checkout.
     
  20. My grammar book Collins Grammar says "less than before a plural noun is used but some people consider it wrong." So I guess we can use it in conversation but should avoid it in writing.
     

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