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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Fixing the English language

In the UK, Tesco is changing its checkout signs after coming under criticism from linguists for using "less" rather than "fewer". As in the sign over the express checkout that reads "LESS THAN TEN ITEMS."

It may seem a minor grammatical point, but language watchdog The Plain English Campaign thinks it's important -- so much so that they helped Tesco come up with an alternative, "UP TO TEN ITEMS," saying it is easy to understand and avoids any debate.

(Though whoops, they still haven't got it quite right.)

Both words are used as comparatives - fewer meaning "a smaller number of" and less meaning "a smaller amount or quantity of" according to A&C Black's Good Word Guide.
Confused? There is plenty of precedent for using less for fewer, argues the Plain English Campaign. It goes back more than 1,000 years, to the time of King Alfred the Great (9th Century), and substituting for fewer is still common in informal speech, especially in the US (and NZ).
THE ANSWER (In case you want to know.)
'Less' means not as much
'Fewer' means 'not as many'
'Fewer' when items can be counted individually

The Plain English Campaign has a simple rule of thumb to help everyone: less means "not as much," whereas fewer means "not as many". Fewer should be used when you are talking about items that can be counted individually, for example, "fewer than 10 apples". Less is correct when quantities cannot be individually counted in that case, e.g. "I would like less water".
But it can be tricky when referring to quantities, says Marie Clair from the Plain English Campaign. For example, we say less than six weeks, not fewer than six weeks, because we are not referring to six individual weeks, but to a single period of time lasting six weeks. Some people get "really roused up" about the misuse of less or fewer, she says, and words that describe quantity, degree or amount seem to perplex people.
Phrases like "10 items or less" or "up to 50% discount" are retail speak and it would be much better to use language "from people on the streets," she adds.

Indeed, Tesco is not alone in committing this grammatical faux pas in public -- the Good Word Guide notes that a Post Office advertisement in the Guardian stated: "Please remember, on Tuesdays and Thursdays there are less queues in the afternoon."
The BBC Magazine, which ran this story, asks readers to send in examples of the grammatical rules or blunders they find most irritating. It would be rather fun if you sent me some, too.

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