10 English majors or less

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From the New Yorker of 28 July, a cartoon by J.C. Duffy (p. 60), showing a man, working a cash register at a grocery store, who is addressing a shopper staring at the sign at his counter. The sign has “10 items or less” on it, with the “less” crossed out and “fewer” written in. Says the man:

“What can I say? I was an English major.”

Two things here: the usage of less and fewer in this context, which Mark Liberman took up here some time ago; and the stereotype of English majors as sticklers for “correct” grammar.


Image, found by Jonathan Lundell:)

 

Mark’s posting followed up a report from Matt Cockerill about how the British retailer Marks & Spencer coped with perceived faults in its signage. First, they issued an apology (and a refund) over an error in apostrophe placement, and then “6 items or less” came under fire:

M&S, of course, likes to project a classy image and this confession of grievous fault [over the apostrophe] rather neatly confirms it as the favoured shop of those with high standards, in grammar as in everything else. A few years ago it changed its “6 items or less” checkout signs for replacement signs declaring, more correctly, “6 items or fewer”, reportedly after customers had grumbled. [from Cockerill]

Mark observed

… that the now-standard pedantry about less/fewer is in fact one of the many false “rules” that have recently precipitated out of the over-saturated solution of linguistic ignorance where most usage advice is brewed.

and pointed our readers to the excellent discussion of the matter in Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage.

As for the English-major stereotype, I’d guess it comes along with the stereotype of ENGLISH TEACHERS as sticklers for correctness. Of course, plenty of English majors are not on a track to being English teachers, and, in my experience, few English majors are pedants about grammar, usage, punctuation, spelling, etc. But then stereotypes are often off the mark.

[Jamie Hope writes: “I would add the stereotype that English majors end up in menial jobs because they haven’t been properly trained for any more advanced careers (cf. this Dilbert strip).”]



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