Copyright New Yorker, J. C. Duffy
In the supermarket the other day I had to restrain myself from correcting their “10 items or less” sign, but fortunately my family were spared embarrassment as I didn’t have access to a black marker. Funny I’ve never noticed this before, but then it’s rare that I have fewer than 10 items. It seems it’s old news, if this Telegraph article is anything to go by.
What are the rules for knowing when to use fewer or less in a sentence, since effectively they mean the same thing? If I’m ever stuck, I think of it in terms of milk and cows. You can have “fewer cows” but not “fewer milk”, and “less milk” but not “less cows”. That’s because fewer refers to quanties that can be strictly counted (such as cows) and less grammatically refers to unknown or uncountable quantities (such as milk), though in everyday speech it tends to be used for both countable and uncountable quantities. And, just to confuse us, less is nearly always used for time, money and distance, even though they have countable units.
The fact that you can count the items in your supermarket basket (like cows) means you can join the “10 items or fewer” queue, but to save space I guess most supermarkets use the grammatically incorrect term less instead. I will avert my eyes on any future supermarket trips, or I may not be responsible for my actions...
I’m a linguaholic; I’m obsessed with language and linguistics. I love working with words and producing perfection. My other passions are cooking, kickboxing and my family, so you may see them appear in one form or another here.
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