Which Word Wednesday: Fewer vs. Less

By November 10, 2010 culture, language No Comments

For some time now, grammar geeks have debated the correctness of the typical signage at grocery store express lanes—you know, the ones that say 10 Items or Less. Most language lovers prefer 10 Items or Fewer.

And so we have another word debate on our hands for Which Word Wednesday. As usual, let’s start with definitions from the Oxford American Dictionary:

fewer :: adjective & pronoun
a small number of; used to emphasize how small a number of people or things is

less :: adjective & pronoun
a smaller amount of; not as much; fewer in number

From definitions alone, these words look to be interchangeable. But the OAD goes on to tell us:

Strictly speaking, the rule is that fewer, the comparative form of few, is used with words denoting people or countable things (fewer members; fewer books; fewer than ten contestants).

Less, on the other hand, is used with mass nouns, denoting things that cannot be counted (less money; less music). In addition, less is normally used with numbers (less than 10,000) and with expressions of measurement or time (less than two weeks; less than four miles away). But to use less with count nouns, as in : less people or : less words, is incorrect in standard English.

And Mark Davidson’s Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage gives further insight:

Maintaining a distinction between fewer and less can contribute to clarity. “Frank’s troubles are less than mine” means “Frank’s total amount of grief is not as large as mine.” “Frank’s troubles are fewer than mine” means “Frank’s problems are not as numerous as mine.”1

To put it all together, we can make the following usage distinctions:

Use fewer with people or countable things, to mean not as numerous.

Use less with mass nouns, things that cannot be counted, numbers, measurements, and time, to mean not as large.

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My WWW verdict? Grocery stores need to employ an editor and get their signs reprinted—10 Items or Fewer is the way to say it. (And perhaps the incorrect signage could be to blame for all those who go over the limit and use the express lane when they have a cartload?)

What’s your verdict? Do grocery stores have it all wrong? Cast your vote and share your opinion in the comments. (After you’ve voted, check out this article about Trader Joe’s. Just another reason to love TJ’s!)

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 251.

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