Linguistic Silliness

Tesco are to change the wording on their checkouts because people have difficulty understanding them, apparently.

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

So what is so difficult?

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

What, I wonder is so difficult about “10 items or less”? It means, simply, that if I have 10 items, I can use the checkout. If I have 5 items, I can use the checkout. If I have 1 item I can use the checkout. If I have 11 items, I cannot use the checkout. Is it me? Or is the world going slowly bonkers?

Now, does “up to 10 items” mean “up to and including 9 items” or “up to and including 10 items”? We need to know.

Tesco’s move follows uncertainty over whether the current notices should use “fewer” instead of “less”.

I can’t help wondering if someone has too much time on their hands.

Courtesy of this definition of “fewer”:


of a smaller number: fewer words and more action.

And among other definitions, this one for “less”:


fewer: less than a dozen

Would that be; a dozen items or fewer, then?

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

As I siad earlier – does that mean “up to and including”? Or can I only go through with up to and including 9 items? Some clarity, please. Why is it, I wonder, that when the Plain English Society becomes involved, things we thought simple sometimes become more complicated? Or should that be complicated or more?

“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”.

My Collins Dictionary concurs with this usage. However, going back to

Even though less has been used before plural nouns (less words; less men) since the time of King Alfred, many modern usage guides say that only fewer can be used in such contexts. Less, they say, should modify singular mass nouns (less sugar; less money) and singular abstract nouns (less honesty; less love). It should modify plural nouns only when they suggest combination into a unit, group, or aggregation: less than $50 (a sum of money); less than three miles (a unit of distance). With plural nouns specifying individuals or readily distinguishable units, the guides say that fewer is the only proper choice: fewer words; fewer men; no fewer than 31 of the 50 states.

Modern standard English practice does not reflect this distinction. When followed by than, less occurs at least as often as fewer in modifying plural nouns that are not units or groups, and the use of less in this construction is increasing in all varieties of English: less than eight million people; no less than 31 of the 50 states. When not followed by than, fewer is more frequent only in formal written English, and in this construction also the use of less is increasing: This year we have had less crimes, less accidents, and less fires than in any of the last five years.

So, in English as it is spoken and used on a daily basis – since King Alfred, no less (or should that be fewer?) – “less” has been interchangeable with “fewer” and we’ve managed to rub along perfectly well. Unless one is a grammar pedant, in which case there have doubtless been some some burst blood vessels along the way. It would, therefore be incorrect to state that Tesco’s usage has been “incorrect”, it merely reflects one usage that has been perfectly acceptable in written and spoken English since Saxon times. Less formal, perhaps, but not incorrect. Or shoud that be fewer… Um, yeah, we’ll let that one pass.

Before we get all tied up in semantics and usage, does anyone seriously not understand what is meant by a checkout sign that says “10 items or less”? Seriously?


  1. “…does anyone seriously not understand what is meant by a checkout sign that says “10 items or less”? Seriously?”

    The people who arrive with a packed trolly, then get shirty with the assistant when she points to the sign and asks them to find another till?

    Mind you, they may just be ignorant of (or disdanful of) societal rules, rather than grammar pedants! 😉

    JuliaMs last blog post..The Criminal Justice System – Well Named….

  2. If they must muck about with these signs I don’t know why they don’t put “No more than 10 items”. It couldn’t be clearer than that. Or could it?

  3. So would I be correct in the following usage?

    Tesco apparently use fewer braincells in formulating policy,


    Tesco exhibit less common sense than most in formulating policy.

    Just curious… 🙂

  4. So would I be correct in the following usage?

    Well, according to the Plain English Society you would. You could get away with swapping the first statement around okay, but fewer common sense might not scan too well 😉

    It couldn’t be clearer than that. Or could it?

    Far too simple.

  5. Why not just designate some tills as reserved for customers with baskets rather than trolleys?

    After all, if people have problems understanding “10 items or less”, then surely counting accurately as far as ten is going to present issues?

    patentlys last blog post..No Way to Run a Government

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