Fewer items, less controversy in the checkout line

A supermarket chain avoids the choice between the informal and the hypercorrect.

You don't have to follow the rules out the window. That's not a bad principle for writers and editors, or even signmakers, to bear in mind. There are times when the right choice between the irksomely colloquial and the achingly correct is to search for a third option.

The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Tesco supermarket chain will introduce new signs at its express checkout lines: "Up to 10 Items."

The express lines have hitherto been marked with signs for "10 Items or Less." Tesco's move is being seen as a retreat in the face of a relentless onslaught by militant grammarians insisting that it be "10 Items or Fewer."

The grammarians are, strictly speaking, right. But the "up to 10 items" formulation strikes this particular nit-picker as inspired. It skirts the fewer/less controversy and accentuates the positive. It builds up to a maximum rather than counting down from one.

Publications, particularly newspapers, often adopt rules that standardize certain spellings, ways of handling certain official titles, and the like. Such rules have the advantage of simplifying decisions for busy writers and editors on deadline, and of adding a subtle layer of consistency to a publication's prose. Sometimes, though, these mostly helpful rules cause other problems.

Here at the Monitor our style tends to favor "closing up" combinations that other publications might hyphenate – nonresident or noncitizen, for instance, instead of non-resident or non-citizen. But the other day we had a reference to people who do not have a college degree. Following the close-up rule out the window was going to leave us with "nondegree-holders." (I can see the T-shirts now: "My family paid $100,000 for my education, and all I got was this lousy nondegree!") We recast it to "those without a degree," and then when it came up again, opted to leave the hyphens in, non-degree-holders.

Meanwhile, back at the checkout line: The principle here is that there are "count nouns," of which you can have more or fewer (cookies, for instance), and "mass nouns," of which you have more or less (candy, for instance).

The Telegraph quoted the following concise advice from Oxford University Press: "Less means 'not as much.' Fewer means 'not as many.' This can be tricky when referring to quantities. 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."

If ever there was a count noun, item is it. You might almost say it exists to help count things. I looked item up, expecting to find that it was a Latin noun meaning "thing," but no. It's an adverb meaning "likewise" or "just so," commonly used to introduce successive entries on a list, an equivalent to the little bullets so readily provided by our word-processing software nowadays.

It would be premature to see the fewer/less debate as settled in the public mind, however. Readers commenting on the Telegraph story quoted extensively from great English writers using constructions analogous to "less items" – Jonathan Swift, George Eliot ("Middlemarch"), and Virginia Woolf, to say nothing of Shakespeare. It also included a note, "In Australian supermarkets, the signs invariably say '10 items or less service.' Ouch."

The original news story was 293 words long. The reader comments attached to the piece clocked in, by the time I checked, at 10,917 words – about the length of a novella. There will always be an England.

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