July 25, 2006

10 Items or Less

I was waiting in Tesco’s “10 Items or Less” line the other day, staring at the sign and letting my mind wander when it suddenly occurred to me that the sign was wrong; it had never occurred to me before, but I think it did now because I’ve come across a lot of fewer/less confusions lately.

It should, as I’m sure you either know or have guessed by now, be “10 Items or Fewer” – if I had less than 10 items, I’d have 9 normal items and a carton of orange juice cut in half with the liquid magically retained in the remaining half… or something like that, anyway.

In case you didn’t know: less is amount, fewer is number. For example, a bowl of rice will have fewer than a million grains of rice and less than 10kg of rice.

Happy Tuesday to all, and to all a good night!

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  1. chris

    I am sorry to contradict you but “10 items or fewer” is grammatically incorrect. Your local supermarket is correct in stating “10 items or less”. This is because 10 items is a threshold and not a plural and thresholds always go with less and not fewer. Other examples which are also correct form are “write an essay in a 1000 words or less”, “Would those people who earn less than £40,000 step forward” , “Reading is less than 50 miles from London”

    I am sure a current edition of Correct Usage will clarify this for you.

    09 Jun 2008, 12:55

  2. I disagree; items are discrete, indivisible, countable objects… which, to me, falls squarely in the domain of “fewer”. If I go to the checkout with 9 items, I have fewer than 10; I can’t have less items than 10 because I’m referring to a number of items. If I were to take a bite out of an apple, I’d then have less apple because I’d be referring to the amount of apple, since – in terms of number – fewer than 1 apple would be no apples at all. However 9 normal items and half an apple is still 10 items; one them is just less than a whole apple…

    I would also say that “10 items or less/fewer” is a fragment of a sentence, and I would think that it would be a shorthand way of saying “10 items, or fewer than 10 items” which would be part of the sentence “You can only use this checkout if you have 10 items, or fewer than 10 items”.

    If the rule, for some reason known only to the supermarket, was to restrict mass, then it would definitely be “10kg or less”.

    09 Jun 2008, 15:01

  3. chris

    You can disagree but if you use the term “10 items or fewer” you are falling into a potentially embarrassing trap of being both pedantic and in error.

    I suggest you look in Fowler’s Modern Usage which explains why “10 items or less” is the correct form.

    Would you say Reading is fewer than 100 miles from London?

    09 Jun 2008, 17:27

  4. Would you say Reading is fewer than 100 miles from London?

    No, because miles are an amount and thus use “less”. You could describe the distance as 160.9 km, 176,000 yards, 1.7×10-11 lightyears, 94,567.2 smoots, 1.6×1015 Angstroms, or any unit of distance you like because you are describing an amount using arbitrary units. However there are no other ways to describe 10 items other than “10 items”, since the items are indivisible.

    Since “10 items” is a number, but “100 miles” is an amount, you have fewer items and less miles.

    09 Jun 2008, 17:47

  5. chris

    Ironic then that English Language examiners always required an essay to be in 500 words or less and never used what you consider to be the correct form of 500 words or fewer.

    So it is Richard Winskill in one corner and the Fowler’s Modern Usage and the mighty Tesco in the other!

    10 Jun 2008, 10:36

  6. Ian

    Well, Chris the OED seem to agree with Richard. See http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutgrammar/lessfewer?view=uk. They say “Less means ‘not as much’. Fewer means ‘not as many’.”, so following those meanings, “not as much items’ is meaningless.

    As it happens, Tesco are changing the wording to “Up to 10 items”

    31 Aug 2008, 15:01

  7. Gary

    10 items or fewer is correct. “Less” is used for mass nouns, whereas “fewer” is used for countable nouns. For instance, the mass noun “water” uses “less.” You wouldn’t say “fewer water,” you’d say “less water.” Countable nouns such as “chairs” use the word “fewer.” So the word “items” also uses “fewer.” If you’re confused about what a mass noun is, it’s a noun that cannot have an indefinite article before it (a/an) or a numeral, unless the numeral is followed by a unit of measurement. i.e., you cannot say “a water,” or “10 water,” instead you say “water” or “10 litres of water,” as opposed to a countable noun of which you can, i.e., “an item,” or “10 items.”

    25 Nov 2009, 13:37

  8. Gordon

    Fewer is used for countable nouns. Let’s think about this for two minutes, or even fewer.


    19 Mar 2010, 04:51

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