By the each

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From John Brewer:

I was in a grocery store this morning when I was taken aback by a sign (professionally produced, not handwritten) saying that the FRESH CUT FRUIT was FRESH CUT DAILY! and SOLD BY THE EACH!  I had a strong WTF reaction, because it seemed very syntactically ill-formed and I couldn’t recall ever seeing it before.  But googling reveals that it’s Out There and other people have likewise been taken aback.  A reddit thread suggests it arose out of intra-industry jargon to distinguish items priced e.g. “$2.99 each” from items priced by the pound or by the quart or what have you,* with additional commenters saying there’s a usage among  people who work in warehouses and similar environments  who use nominalized “each” contrastively with “case”  (so if you need a co-worker to get you a quantity that’s more than 12 cases but less than 13 cases “you might say ‘hey mike, 12 cases 3 eaches.’”

Once you accept the possibility that “each” has been turned into a noun (which previous to today I was unaware it had done in any variety of English), the “the” in front of it becomes grammatical, but I still find it somewhat baffling, in part because there’s a pre-existing idiom “sold by the piece” which would seem to cover pretty much the same situation without messing up anyone’s grammaticality intuitions.  It also seems like this may be a case of what GKP calls “nerdview” where something that makes a certain amount of idiomatic sense among workers talking jargon to each other in the stockroom has escaped out to the signage meant to communicate to customers/outsiders.   

*The context here was the part of the produce department where you can buy a plastic container filled with chunks of precut watermelon or cantalope or what have you – I can’t imagine they were pricing per individual chunk of fruit, so I’m assuming (didn’t think to check more closely at the time) that they were charging a flat rate for any container of watermelon the same size, rather than having weighed them individually and priced them differently on the basis that this one has .713 lbs but this one costs more because it has .802 lbs etc.    



  1. James said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 11:43 am

    I've definitely seen "per each" on signs in supermarkets in Rhode Island. As in, "Tangelos, $.89 per each".

    Also, Rhode Islanders say "Side by each" (for "side by side"), or at least some do, possibly those in the community descended from Acadians. Different, but it seems vaguely relevant.

  2. Ethan said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    "by the each" and "per each" are both familiar to me from grocery store signage. I don't recall when I first encountered these but it must have been long ago, perhaps as long ago as I've been grocery shopping. Now you have me wondering if it is a regional usage.

  3. Nathan said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

    I've assumed for a while that this originated in computer systems that print price tags.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    Here is "per each" from 1882, not in prices but in expressions such as "Persons employed per each non-fatal accident".

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 12:57 pm

    And The Florists' Review used "sold by the 'each'" in 1918.

    I like the British expression "a time", as in "Macarons are lovely, but at two quid a time…"

  6. Ø said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

    This reminds me a little of the way a box that has 24 Things in it may be labelled "Things, 24 count".

  7. Guy said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

    I don't see the relation between the "by the each" construction and "per each". "Per each" seems like a normal example of the fused determined-head construction, or, as in "per each non-fatal accident", a perfectly syntactically ordinary construction with "each" functioning as determiner in the noun phrase "each non-fatal accident". "By the each", on the other hand, is unusual in that the determinatives "the" and "each" are usually mutually exclusive and "each" here seems to be functioning like an noun roughly synonymous with "individual" or "unit".

  8. rootlesscosmo said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    Maybe, since "piece" can also mean "less than the whole," "cantaloupe by the piece" might be taken to mean "by the slice" or "by the melon," "by the each" aims to resolve this question? I've certainly heard it in conversation between grocery store workers and customers.

  9. Dick Margulis said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

    Ø: "24 count" is a size in fruits-and-vegetables jargon. It means that 24 items of this size fit in a standard carton (whatever the standard happens to be for that type of produce). So 24 count oranges are bigger than 32 count oranges, 18 count bunches of broccoli are smaller than 14 count bunches of broccoli, etc. It doesn't mean you have to buy that many to get the posted price.

    Regarding nerdview, I had an instructive conversation with a produce clerk a few months ago. I pointed out a contradiction between the posted unit price on some item and the selling price (a simple error that would have been easy to rectify with a marker). The clerk was oblivious to the concept of unit price and insisted that that number in the corner of the sign was just a code for their internal use and consumers shouldn't pay any attention to it. She was quite insistent on the point, demonstrating a complete misunderstanding of what the various portions of the sign represented. So I don't think we can draw any conclusions about viewpoint at all when it comes to signs in produce departments. Be happy they don't call apples bananas.

  10. Natalie SW said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

    i had the same horrified response the first time I saw that about a year ago in an article I was copy editing. Since then, though, I've seen it several times. Is it perhaps regional? I'm in Chicago.

  11. Q. Q. Switcheroo said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

    There's an old cartoon where a customer is inspecting the signs at an apple orchard: "WE-PICK: $2.00/lb. / U-PICK: $1.00/lb." His response: "Gimme a bushel of those u-picks."

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 3:30 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman

    I never realised 'a time' was BrE particularly. What would you guys says?

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 4:02 pm

    In terms of "by the each" potentially being a regionalism, one could do some googling and see where examples have turned up. FYI the instance I saw and referenced in my email to myl was in an A&P in or near Scarsdale, N.Y. – not where I usually buy my groceries but it's right next to the dentist I take my kids to. But if I've never previously noticed it in 20+ years of buying groceries in the NYC area, the last decade of which has been <10 miles from the store in question, it can't be that dominant in this particular region . . .

  14. bratschegirl said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

    I'm not sure I've ever seen it printed on store signage out here in California, but in the SF Bay Area there was a notable figure in my youth named Joe Carcione, who was "The Greengrocer" on local TV and radio, doing segments on what was in season and/or new to market, and what was attractively priced at a particular retailer. He used "by the each" all the time, for items which were priced by the piece as opposed to by weight.

  15. Rubrick said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

    What most people don't realize is that the word "peach" is actually a shortening of "per each", as used by grocers in the late 19th century. Prior to that the fruit was known as a "fuzzywump".

    (Sorry, I'm a couple of weeks early.)

  16. Eric P Smith said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

    "Gimme a bushel of those u-picks."

    When I was small, there was a brand of empty pastry-cases with the brand name "u-fill-it" or perhaps it was "u-fil-it". My younger sister, just learning to read, said she wanted uffilits at her birthday party.

    I've known "per each" for at least 40 years. It struck me as ridiculous when I first saw it, but one gets used to such things. "By the each" is new to me. (Scotland)

  17. Ø said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

    Dick Margulis,

    I believe you, but when I google "24 count" the first hit is about a box of 24 Ferrero-Rocher candies, the next two are about boxes of 24 batteries, and the next is about a box of 24 Crayola crayons.

  18. Ken said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 7:15 pm

    Then thi's isnt a ca'se of the greengrocers apo'strophe?

  19. Eric N. said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 7:35 pm

    When I worked in a supermarket produce department in Minnesota (1967-1981), I heard "by the each," though I don't remember using it myself. It seems like an unsurprising analogy.

    a dollar a dozen / sold by the dozen
    a dollar a pound / sold by the pound
    a dollar each / sold by the each

    We never used the term "piece" to refer to a unit of anything unless we were talking about portions of a whole, as in "a piece of watermelon."

  20. Jonathan Lundell said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

    You'll see it on pricelists, too, where often a line will contain both a quantity and unit field. The unit might be, say, kg, or lb, or doz, or "ea" for each.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 7:58 pm

    Interesting to see how old/well-established the usage apparently is in the relevant trade. I guess to echo Guy's analysis upthread I just have trouble finding the analogy to "by the dozen" or "by the pound" to be "unsurprising," because . . . "dozen" and "pound" are nouns and (outside of this novel context) "each" isn't," and "[verbed] by the X" only works when X is a noun (or something reasonably noun-like for syntactic purposes – we can bracket the question of how to classify gerunds etc for other purposes). I find turning "each" into a noun quite surprising (not "the barbarians are at the gates" surprising, just "language keeps turning out to be weirder than we often assume" surprising".) Or am I wrong about my premise? Because if any of my fellow Anglophones have the intuition that "[verbed] by the X" can be grammatical for X's that aren't nouns or reasonable facsimiles of nouns, I'd be interested in seeing examples.

  22. maidhc said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 10:27 pm

    I've heard "by the each" since the 1960s, mostly from my parents and older people. None of my family is in the grocery business, but my mother did have a copy of Joe Carcione's cookbook.

    Could there be some influence from "by the inch"?

  23. Bob Ladd said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 3:13 am

    I'm fairly sure I recall each being used as a designation for units on inventory forms in the US Army when I made my obligatory 2-year acquaintance with that organization in the late 1960s. So each was parallel to case, dozen, and so on. And "1 each" was used colloquially – again, if memory serves – to mean something like "here's one for you".

    I googled "1 each" just now, and on the first page of hits I got an Amazon ad for "Carex Carex Sitz Bath, 1 each". This is exactly the kind of usage I recall from army inventory forms, and it seems clearly related to the usage under discussion in this thread.

  24. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 5:53 am

    If it's Chicago, then it's just German mixed with Polish ;)

    German has Stück in this sense: sie kosten zwei Euro das Stück. (Or so I'm told. My German is quite rusty.) Stück is of course a noun…

    Polish has borrowed Stück as sztuka, thus kosztują dwa euro za sztukę. Which is per the each exactly: you get both the preposition and the article. (Za is a preposition.)

    (Also, packaging [cf. Ø and Dick Margulis above] would always have "24 Stück/24 sztuki" etc.)

    More seriously, rootlesscosmo above has probably nailed it: piece is just uselessly ambiguous. Or at least it feels so to my L2 ears — because I have sztuka in my L1. BTW, Polish companies have a notoriously hard time translating za sztukę into English.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 8:40 am

    Guy: "Per" in this sense usually isn't followed by a determinative. "Per hour", "per ton", etc. I agree that "by the each" is weirder, and "eaches" (new to me) totally weirds me out.

    Pflaumbaum: I usually hear or say "two bucks apiece" or "each". The slangy "a shot" is possible. So many "dollars a time" or "bucks a time" is occasionally used for services, not goods. In my experience.

  26. Linda Seebach said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    "And all it will cost you is $2 eaches."

  27. Robert Coren said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 10:48 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I would surmise that the use of quotation marks in the 1918 example suggests that the writer understood it to be a non-standard usage.

  28. Rodger C said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    No weirder than how "item" became a noun.

  29. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 6:41 pm

    "I'll take three eaches of peaches."

  30. Graeme said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 3:23 am

    British 'a time' is akin to US (? also Australian) 'a pop'.
    Which I believe began life as 'each go/attempt) but broadened to just mean 'each instance'.

  31. Bean said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 10:51 am

    Two thoughts,

    (1) "by the each" fills a desperate need for parallel construction with "by the pound". Humans sometimes create perfectly parallel constructions, but databases (and their predecessors, inventories) require them. So that structure is forced onto whatever you're entering in the database.

    (1a) for example, when filling out (government) requisition forms while trying to hire a company to do a research contract, the number and price fields can't be blank, so locally the standard is to fill it in as "1 research contract (see Statement of Requirements) at [e.g.] $40,000" even though it seems really weird to me to buy something as amorphous as a research contract in quantities of one. I guess that would be advertised as "Research contracts, sold by the each"?? :P

    (2) remember that even a "professionally produced" sign is put together by some individual person in an office at a word processor or graphics program, who may have a stack of signs to produce on any given day, and they just put whatever seems correct (maybe their previous job was in the warehouse, after all; or they're filling in for the usual guy who's sick), check the spelling if we're lucky, add some exclamation points, and hit print.

  32. Jake Nelson said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

    I worked at Target for 7 years, and not only are these in use, but we say "eaches" sometimes.

    "By the piece" doesn't work, because in jargon, cases and loose eaches are both "pieces", ie discrete physical things you're moving. If I'm pulling something from the backroom, and the PDA tells me I need 20 of something that comes in a case of 12, I need "one case and eight eaches", which is 9 pieces.

  33. Chad Nilep said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 1:17 am

    @Jerry Friedman:
    "Persons employed per each non-fatal accident" seems to be a case of "per accident" with a determiner and an adjective modifying the noun. That doesn't strike me as innovative or odd in the way "per each" with no following noun does.

  34. blahedo said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 8:21 pm

    Super sorry to be late to this game, but I'd like to note that "each" is already a very interesting word that resists easy classification. I wrote a masters' thesis on its use in utterances like "…gave the boys three apples each," where it is not (quite) a quantifier, or an adverb, or a number. Malte Zimmerman argued that this "each" (and its analogues in other languages, e.g. "jeweils" in German) were prepositional phrases, but that's not quite right either, I think. My work focused on the formal semantics necessary to represent it, which was a ton of fun. ( , if you're interested.)

    Hadn't seen "by the each" before, though. I'll have to add it to the menagerie.

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