More on less

« previous post | next post »

Further linguistic adventures at grocery store check-out counters: last time it was a New Yorker cartoon in which "10 items or less" was altered to "10 items or fewer", mimicking real-life episodes like the one in which (under grumbling from customers) the Marks & Spencer chain replaced its "6 items or less" signs with "6 items or fewer", reported on here.

And now, also from the U.K., comes the news that the giant supermarket chain Tesco is also replacing its checkout signs. This time "10 items or less" will bow to "Up to 10 items".

Here's the BBC News story in full (hat tip to David Denison):

Tesco checks out wording change

Tesco is to change the wording of signs on its fast-track checkouts to avoid any linguistic dispute.

The supermarket giant is to replace its current "10 items or less" notices with signs saying "Up to 10 items".

Tesco's move follows uncertainty over whether the current notices should use "fewer" instead of "less".

The new wording was suggested to Tesco by language watchdog The Plain English Campaign. Tesco said the change would be phased in across its stores.

"Saying up to 10 items is easy to understand and avoids any debate," said a spokesman for The Plain English Campaign.

"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".

Tesco is the UK's largest supermarket group with 2,106 outlets across the country. 

Mark Liberman's posting that mentioned the Marks & Spencer case also took on the "rule" cited above, restricting less to use with mass nouns. Mark cited MWCDEU at some length, where it's argued that certain uses of less with count nouns — in particular, the use in these checkout line signs — are entirely standard and have been so for many centuries. (Fewer is also standard in these uses, but it is much less common there.) The Plain English Campaign has its facts wrong, but it holds to its opinion with bulldog ferocity.

The interesting wrinkle in the Tesco case is that the Plain English Campaign did not suggest the usual "correction" of less to fewer, but to "avoid any linguistic dispute" — presumably between people who find or less entirely natural and those who insist that only or fewer is acceptable — proposed a third formulation, with up to. In effect, the purported "rule" is starting to drive both less and fewer out of business, at least in certain contexts.


Comments are closed.