Submitted by bob on September 23, 2004

“Ten Items or Less (Fewer?)”

Alright, my pet peeve is the confusion behind the use of the words “less” and “fewer”.

My thought is “fewer” relates to units while “less” relates to a quality or state of being. Basically, “If you can count them, use the word ‘fewer’ and if you can’t, it’s ‘less’”.

“Fewer cars on the road results in less traffic. This means less stress which, in turn, will result in fewer headaches.”

That makes sense, doesn’t it?

But I constantly see in the print media and hear on the radio or TV people reporting, “...this will mean less jobs for workers ...”.

I recently saw a full-page ad for a Ford hybrid fuel/electric SUV which touted “...less trips to the gas pump” and (interestingly enough, in the same paragraph) “fewer repairs”. Hey! Elements of Style, anyone?

Now that my point of ire is established, the real question is that of my Subject line, the ubiquitous sign at the supermarket. Which is correct? Rather than tell what I’ve heard, I’ll just let this go on the table for all to consider.

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This article and the comments are all totally wrong. The finest authors in the language have always used "less" for countable items and it is ignorant nonsense to make up a spurious rule to the contrary. Here are just a few examples, but I could give you many more. "Fewer" hardly features at all in their works.


Middlemarch – George Eliot

12734: Mr. Trumbull. "I have no less than two hundred volumes in calf, and I
23100: You will do with a suit or two less, I fancy, when you have to pay
24663: No less than five hundred printed in a beautiful red.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

2556: in less than two months I was allowed to commence French and drawing.
9541: I suppose your love will effervesce in six months, or less.


Sons and Lovers – DH Lawrence

4081: 'And I keep this house on less than thirty,' she replied;
16461: that. His fee wouldn't be less than ten guineas to come here from


Origin of Species – Charles Darwin

1413: ;never less than 20,000 pigeons were taken with the
2713: marked all the seedlings of our native weeds as they came up, and out of 357 no less than 295 were destroyed
4966: and that, of the twenty-nine endemic genera, no less than twenty-three have all their species in this condition!
(numerous other examples in this book)


Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

7902: In less than five months his term here would have ended
15339: fields below her of less than half-a-dozen acres
15721: This too familiar intonation, less than four years earlier,

Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad

27: I should say, in less than three hours
1673: and less than three days after leaving port on his outward passage
7982: and the belief in it is so persistent that less than forty years ago


French Revolution – Thomas Carlyle

15090: and cannot be flattered back again;--not in less than three days

The Book of Household Management – Isabella Beeton

4957: a dinner-party should consist of not less than the number of theGraces, or more than that of the Muses.
15980: regal palace with no less than a hundred different dishes
61588: an infant should be suckled . . . . never be less than nine, nor exceed fifteen months;
(numerous other examples in this book)

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

2583: It stood prominent six feet, and could not be less than sixteen in circumference
4812: I did not reach it in less than five hours
4875: appeared in a parallel of less then a hundred yards distance

The Prime Minister – Anthony Trollope
'that their will never be less than forty for the next two months.'
The towns with less than 20,000 inhabitants were to take in some increased portion


The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine

1129: Not less than three hundred thousand persons arranged themselves in the procession from Versailles to Paris
1939: a curate on thirty or forty pounds a-year, or less.
4326: Not less, I believe, than eight or ten pamphlets intended as answers . . . . . have been published
9112: within less than four years of peace.

Chrome Yellow – Aldous Huxley

3139: there are ten volumes of 'Thom's Works and Wanderings', while the 'Wild Goose Chase, a Novel', by an anonymous author, fills no less than six.

The Vicar of Wakefield – Olvier Goldsmith

2431: in less than four days the whole was compleated.
4857: in less than six days some were penitent


The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin


of plants. In five little packets which I sent him, he has ascertained no less than sixty-seven different organic forms!

of two marine species, are all inhabitants of fresh-water. I have found no less than fifteen different accounts of dust
or any other cause, this organ still retained its vitality.

I found no less than twelve different species of terrestrial
order Rodentia is here very numerous in species: of mice alone I obtained no less than eight kinds.
(There are over a 100 similar examples)

Charles Dickens:
Tale of Two Cities
10530: "Go and see him when he has a good batch. Figure this to yourself, citizen; he shaved the
10531: sixty-three to-day, in less than two pipes! Less than two pipes. Word of honour!"

Little Dorrit
11096 ; the noble Refrigerator, at no time less than a hundred years behind the period

Bleak House
6697: She said if he were not so anxious about his spelling and took less pains to make it clear,

Dombey and Son
The Captain thanked him heartily, and promising to come back in less that five minutes

Martin Chuzzlewit
'The money we brought with us,' said Martin, 'is reduced to a few shillings less than eight pounds.'

Barnaby Rudge
he entertained no less than two apprentices

The Old Curiosity Shop
had been at less pains to conceal his dislike and repugnance

Nicholas Nickelby
having been exposed to this inhuman and barbarous system for no less than five years
and thus it was that in less than thirty seconds
had been no less than three other knockers muffled, one after the other within the last forty-eight hours
the circumstance of his having poisoned himself in private no less than six times within the last fortnight
enjoying the quiet beauty of the night, which seemed to have scarcely less attractions to Frank

Pickwick Papers
in less than five minutes after he had been shown to his comfortable bedroom,
"In less than five minutes' time, Tom was ensconced in the room opposite the bar
"Less than two hundred years ago, on one of the public baths in this city,
Mr. Bob Sawyer removed to any place at not less than fifty miles' distance, without delay.

William Shakespeare (The word “fewer” only occurs three times in whole of Shakespeare)

Timon of Athens
Has friendship such a faint and milky heart, It turns in less than two nights?

King Lear
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;

Romeo and Juliet
Thou! why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more, or a hair less, in his beard,

Taming of the Shrew
Gremio, 'tis known my father hath no less than three great argosies, besides two galliasses

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Just remember, you can't put too much water in a nuclear reactor.

Wait, what?

he meant you can't overfill one.

No he meant you can overfill it.

Alarms, meltdown.

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According to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, "less" refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted. This has been the actually usages of "less" for a thousand years.

The prescription that "less" should not refer to things that are counted arose in 1770. It was someone's opinion, and somehow turned into a rule that lots of people think they have to follow.

You can read the entry here:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/arch...

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Some supermarkets do get it right.
I was pleased to see the little sign in the express queue at my Marks & Spencers reads "5 items or fewer".

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The English distinction between "mass nouns" (that take the "uncountable" adjectives such as "less" and "much") and the more common countable nouns that take "fewer" and "many" is a source of mischief to non-native speakers from languages that do not make similar distinctions. That many languages do without this distinction, and that even English seems to be abandoning it, persuades me that it serves no useful purpose.

"Ten items or fewer" strikes me as pedantic and just too, too correct. No marketer worth his salt would post such a thing. "Ten items or less" raises the ire of the typical pedant, so it is probably best to avoid committing the "error." The merchant is only left with avoiding the issue, which seems to have been the gist of many of the messages posted above.

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Dictionary.com states:-
Usage Note: The traditional rule holds that fewer should be used for things that can be counted (fewer than four players), while less should be used with mass terms for things of measurable extent (less paper; less than a gallon of paint). However, less is used in some constructions where fewer would occur if the traditional rule were being followed. Less than can be used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: less than three weeks; less than $400; less than 50 miles. Less is sometimes used with plural nouns in the expressions no less than (as in No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter) and or less (as in Give your reasons in 25 words or less).
Personally, I dont think this really clears up the argument but thought iwas worth adding to the debate.

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@Paul Newcomb - Stephen Fry's paean to the wonders of the English language should be compulsory viewing for all those who think love of the language consists of criticising others for not following some artificial rule or other. I've already linked to it myself in these pages.

Tesco's decision was a victory for the grammar police and a sad day for those of us who believe in the primacy of idiomatic English over pedantry.

The truth is that "less" has been used for countable nouns since the earliest days of English, and by some of our finest writers, as Patrick Hadley has shown. If anything it is the strict differentiation between fewer and less that is "new", not vice versa. It seems to have started around 1770 when one man's idea (that fewer for number was more elegant) became elevated into a "rule".

And even where we might use "fewer" in more formal language, what some people call "careful writing", we often use "less" in normal spoken language; I know I often use "less" for people , for example - "There were less people than last time".

And it's not as though the rule doesn't have exceptions: Less is always used in mathematical expressions and after "one" - "That's one less thing I have to do today". And also, of course, when units can be broken down into smaller ones - "less than five miles / ten gallons / eight years old"

As for the supermarket signs, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage suggests that "less" is the usual choice in constructions like "Ten items or less", "500 words or less". And as with advertisements, aren't supermarket signs likely to come across as more friendly if they use the language people normally speak rather than some over-correct version?

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I think that part of the confusion between "little/less" and "few/fewer" is that the other words serving a similar function do not share the subtly distinction. The opposite of both is "more."

"There is less water."
"There are fewer people."

"There is more water."
"There are more people."

"There is enough water."
"There are enough people."

"There is insufficient water."
"There are insufficient people."

"There is a lot of water."
"There are a lot of people."

Thus the existence of "less" and "fewer" is kind of peculiar, since our fair language passes on the opportunity for such a distinction in most other cases (except "much" vs. "many").

Beyond that, there is confusion over the fact that when using measurements, both are okay depending on the circumstances, though they change the meaning.

"I walked 1000 meters today. That's fewer than yesterday."
"I walked 1000 meters today. That's less than yesterday."

"I can afford less than five gallons of gas."
"I can afford fewer than five gallons of gas."

"I only have twenty-five dollars. Is that too little?"
"I only have twenty-five dollars. Is that too few?"

Anyways, while it is clearly a mistake to say "less people" or "less trips" or "less jobs," I also think it is an understandable mistake that is symptomatic of a real problem in the language (and no, I don't think the error is on the rise. If anything, it's probably less common that it was 100 years ago). This is especially true when talking about things that are usually treated in an abstract way, as though you were measuring water.

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albertson's supermarket in burbank has "10 items or fewer" signs.

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'Fewer than ten items' runs into a similar problem - it implies that ten items is absolutely unacceptable. Some supermarkets here have taken to 'Hand baskets only'... but does that mean I can take two full baskets through?

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if ten items is a total then it's singular thus one must use less. e.g. i have less than ten items; however, i have ten less items than you do is incorrect. it should be i have ten fewer items than you do.

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Doesn't it have to be "10 or fewer items"?

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We teach elementary students that the symbol '<' means 'less than' when comparing numbers or sets. The teaching unit is called 'Greater Than and Less Than'. Could this be because the terminology was probably derived from mathematicians, not Grammar Gurus?!

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Just to say sorry for joining a debate on grammar and omitting to use spell check before submitting my comment!!!

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6187

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Your thinking is reasonable. Hyperdictionary states that 'fewer' is for countable items, and 'less' is for comparing adjectives (less healthy). But it also mentions less is "nonstandard in some uses but often idiomatic with measure phrases". An idiom is "an expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up." So basically it's just a bad expression that is going to be nearly impossible to destroy.

When I did some bookkeeping work this summer, I often heard less in a phrase like 'thirty-three dollars net income less five dollars tax'. This appears to be a correct usage. Could the 'x items of less' usage have evolved from this older sounding phrasing?

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Have you seen this? http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7590440.stm -

Tesco checks out wording change

Tesco says the change will be phased in

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".

(Follow link to read more).

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See my latest comment to this post:

http://painintheenglish.com/post.asp?id=225

Also some thoughts: When we think of "fewer," we think of a decreased quantity of individual items. When we think of "less," we think of a smaller item, or--here's the connection--a smaller GROUP of items.

So we could occasionally, and quite legitimately, have two ways of putting the same thing, like so:

"There is less emphasis on proper English usage these days." Or,
"Fewer people emphasize proper English usage these days."

That's where I think the confusion arises, though I doubt if most English speakers could articulate it.

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I work at a grocery store and recently noticed the express lane sign because of this entry. It reads "Fewer Than 10 Items." I suppose some people know the difference.

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I believe you use "less than" when the quantity you are refering to can split into smaller segments.
For example: You would say "less than 10 dollars" because dollars can split into cents.
You would also say "less than 10 weeks" because weeks can split into days.

However "fewer than" would be used for quantities than can't be broken down.
I.e. You would say "10 items or fewer" because you can't break down items.

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When dealing with money, percentages, time, etc whose units can be further reduced, use "less instead of "fewer."

The following statements are incorrect:
"Fewer than five gallons," "Fewer than 5-dollars," "Fewer than 5 percent," "Fewer than 10-miles"

Why? "less than 5-gallons" can mean 4.5 gallons (not countable. "Less than 5-dollars" can be $4.87. If the lowest denomination is one-dollar, then fewer would be correct.

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If it helps, think of it as an amount of 10 items or less, but with the first bit elided:

(An amount of) 10 times or less.

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1889

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I have to point out, in light of Jun-Dai's post, that "much" and "more" don't share the same confusion. If I were to say, "I don't have many time to finish this," or, "I have too much pennies," you'd look at me funny.

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Oops, I made an error,

I meant to say that "much" and "many" don't share the same confusion.

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2309

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I have always thought of "less" as describing things that a person would not count out individually, and "fewer" as describing things that one would: "I made the drinks with less sugar, so they will contain fewer calories".

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